“ Address: Koconut Grove / Ethos Court / City Road / Chester CH1 3AE „
The head of our UK business strolled through the offices the other day and stopped at my desk with an excited look on his face. As part of the Euro team, I'm normally pretty much ignored by the UK people so I was surprised. "I've been meaning to tell you something", he said cryptically, "There's a fabulous new Indian restaurant in Chester that you really must try".
I was surprised as he and I have only ever eaten Chinese together. How did he know I'd be interested in an Indian? "I know you like India so I assume you like the food" - so that's the secret. It's a bit like saying someone who likes Italy probably wants a tip off for a shop that sells Italian shoes. Then things became even more bizarre. The place he recommended was the same restaurant for which I had a GroupOn voucher which I'd not got round to using. After checking that John can tell the difference between good and average (he pointed me to his Tripadvisor reviews of curry houses) I rang Koconut Grove and booked a table.
Firstly a word or two about the name; what's with the K for Koconut? When did mis-spelling something in an entirely non-ironic way become the basis for style and branding? The food was going to need to be good to get me past my natural instinct to shudder at that K.
My husband picked me up from work and we drove into Chester. He doesn't like Chester and he's less familiar with the place than I am. He got very grumpy on the drive and realised he should have left it to me. The restaurant is on City Road in the west of the city, not far from the A51. City Road is the road at the back of the railway station which runs north-south and ends at the quirky historic roundabout which isn't really a roundabout because it's got houses and businesses on it (if you know Chester, you'll know where I mean). Koconut Grove is on the southern end of City Road in a small side branch called Ethos Court, a modern development that looks a little out of place in Chester where most of the city is so old. It as a good thing that I'd checked the website to know what the place looked like as it definitely didn't look like an Indian restaurant. The restaurant has a car park which is free in the evenings. Unfortunately I'd not learned that from the website and we didn't realise until we'd parked a considerable distance away by the Job Centre. However, now I know it's there, I'd be likely to take advantage of it another time.
The front of the building is all glass and steel and it looks rather more like a bathroom supplies shop than a restaurant. First impressions when we went inside were very good and very un-Indian. It's light, bright and modern with lots of framed pictures (none of them of anything Indian) and big displays of artificial flowers and plants. The room has been broken up by the use of half-height partitions which give a sense of not just being in an enormous room full of tables. We were initially offered a table in a rather too sunny spot and asked for somewhere out of the direct glare and were moved to an alcove with just two tables.
GroupOn deals can be complicated so we asked the waitress to come back after we'd had a look and explain what we could and couldn't have. All the waiting staff are women and none of them were Indian, so that was quite a change from most places. My deal voucher had cost £14 and was for a starter, main and side dish for two people and we just wanted to check there were no exclusions or extra charges. Many of the deals we've bought in the past were hard to use without spending a fortune on supplements and had turned out to not be great value. She brought us our drinks and then explained that all of the starters were included and all of the Indian food. The dosas and other south Indian pancake-based dishes were classified as main courses. The only thing not included was the English menu which was fine since we hadn't gone there with the intention of (in the words of the famous 'Goodness Gracious Me' sketch) 'going for an English'.
Having an English menu seems a bit weird to me. Ever since I was a kid, Chinese restaurants tended to have a tiny English section for those too timid to try something more often. It normally included omelette and chips and not much more. This is not the case at Koconut Grove. Their English menu looks like it belongs in a totally different restaurant. There are two vegetarian options - a risotto and some pasta so nothing too surprising - two steaks, two fish dishes, and duck, pork, lamb and chicken dishes. I wasn't tempted and wouldn't have been even if these were included, but I did wonder how a kitchen could handle that level of complexity on top of an already rather large Indian menu. I suppose on one hand it gives the flexibility to take a group of people and not alienate the spice haters, but it's hard to imagine going out for Indian and being tempted by a roast chicken breast instead.
~Starting as we mean to go on~
Let's start with the starters and the first thing we noticed was no pressure to buy poppadoms. I didn't even see them on the menu until I checked the website after. This was a relief since I know that if they are offered, almost certainly my brain will say "No" but the words Yes please" will come out of my mouth. I will then fill my tummy with poppadoms and have no space left when I come to my expensive main dishes. If you want them, they are there on the menu but you'll need to ask.
There are 18 listed starters. I'm sorry but surely that's too many to deal with and to keep all the ingredients fresh in the kitchen. The list includes some English classics like soup, prawn cocktail and grilled goat cheese, as well as plenty of Indian dishes. There's a distinctly southern feel with the inclusion of vada, the evil south Indian savoury donut. What you won't find no matter how hard you look are onion bajhis and vegetable samosas although there is a mixed pepper and onion pakora for those looking for something they can more easily recognise. The starter prices are very good with nothing on the list at more than £4.50 including lamb and king prawn dishes. The cheapest starters are less than £3.
We ordered 'Home made salmon and crab fish cake' and 'Indian Spiced Crispy Whitebait with sweet Chilli Sauce'. The two dishes came on long narrow plates with a substantial salad garnish. The whitebait came with a rather standard sweet chilli sauce and the fish cake had a few dots of a herb dressing. Considering how cheap whitebait is, the portion was rather small but the titchy fishes weren't that wonderful so I wasn't unhappy to have only 6 or 7 after I split the dish with my other half. I guess it's a bit crazy to try to add spice to a fish whose natural flavour is so strong. They are allegedly marinated overnight with chilli powder, turmeric powder, lime juice, ginger garlic paste and curry leaves but they mostly just taste of whitebait which is a little disappointing. The fish cake was pleasant but I probably should have thought about the fact that it might be part of the English menu rather than the Indian. I'd expected it to have a bit of a kick and it didn't but that's possibly my fault for not sussing the Anglo-angle. It was an entirely decent and adequate fish cake but I'd suspect it was white fish and crab rather than salmon and crab because I didn't spot anything 'pink' about it at all.
For main courses, there's a whole page of southern specials of the pancake or fried batter type. There are 9 types of dosas, the thin crispy crepe-like pancakes with different types of filling. There are a further 3 types of uthapam, the thicker topped pancake that's a bit like an Indian pizza. There are also idlis and vadas - both of which I seriously recommend you avoid. I spent two weeks in the south running away from both every time I saw them. Idlis are little puffy white doodads that look like they've been fashioned from a white bath sponge, and vadas are the aforementioned evil savoury donuts. There's nothing more fun than watching someone's face when they discover what they thought was a donut has big chunks of raw green chilli inside.
On the more conventional 'stuff in a sauce' type curries and biryanis, there's plenty to choose from starting with four types of biryani. The south Indian menu has 16 different dishes and the 'Indian favourites' (or rather more conventional dishes) offers a further 8 including the wimpy options of chicken korma and chicken tikka masala, both of which I'd happily see obliterated from the face of English dining since they seem to exist only to satisfy people who probably should have gone to Pizza Express instead. Again, I'm asking how any kitchen can handle such complexity. It's not as if there are 16 dishes and they're just small variations on a theme - they're actually quite different.
We went for the Karnataka prawn masala and the Kerala fish curry as our main courses with a portion of boiled rice and a garlic nan as our sides. Both dishes were around the £9 mark which seemed to be very good value compared with some other places we've eaten recently. The rice which was a big portion and easily enough for both of us was just £1.50 and the nan, the size of a pizza, was the same price. I'm still reeling from the shock of just how good the prices were at this place.
Very hot plates were brought to the table and then the dishes were delivered in plain white china dishes. There was no need for the palaver of candle-powered food warmers because the dishes and the plates had been heated to near nuclear-meltdown temperatures. The Karnataka prawn masala was absolutely gorgeous, packing quite a punch and combining it with a smooth creamy sauce. The prawns were big ones and there were a surprisingly good number to be found, sitting in their rich red sauce. Last time I went out for curry there were only five prawns in the dish and my friend and I had to fight over the last one. I was slightly more wary of the fish curry which I instantly recognised as containing the southern spice that's used in Sambar, the south Indian equivalent of a runny daal. To this day I don't know which spice it is that's used but I only have to smell it for my throat to contract and my stomach to turn over. It might be fenugreek but I'm not sure. Fortunately, it wasn't used in too high a concentration and I was able to get through my half of the dish. It was, by virtue of the nasty ingredient, the most authentic and easily identified as genuinely reminiscent of southern India. I'd expected this to contain chunks of fish but instead we found an enormous chunk of pink fish - probably salmon, possibly trout - sitting in the middle of the dish. I loved the prawn masala and it's a tribute to the chef that I got through all my half of the fish curry too.
~Looks and tastes expensive - but it isn't~
If we hadn't had a voucher, our meal with two starters, two mains, two side dishes and three drinks (a diet coke and two half pints of Cobra) would have come to just over £35. With the food knocked off, we paid just £5.75 for our drinks on top of the £14 I paid for the voucher. This really was one of the best GroupOn deals we've had. I loved the variety of dishes on offer, struggled to work out how they could possibly manage the menu, and was baffled by how they could have a premises in a city as expensive as Chester and still make a living at the prices they were charging. Even better value, if you have the opportunity to go at lunch time, is the extensive 'lunch club' deal which offers two courses for something like £7.95. All the lunch club dishes are identified on the menu with the letters 'LC' and the choice is not restricted to just a few dishes with plenty of Indian and English dishes on the list.
We got excellent food, nicely served, in pleasant surroundings for little more than going to a bog-standard run of the mill curry house. I didn't love everything but I definitely wanted to go back and have another go and sure enough we made our second visit earlier this week. I was very happy to discover that Koconut Grove is part of the Tastecard scheme and offers cardholders a '2 for 1' offer on all food. For our second visit, our bill including drinks for two people came to just £18.00. I'm impressed enough to be considering renewing my Tastecard when it expires whereas I had previously pretty much decided to give it up.
Koconut Grove, Ethos Court, City Road, Chester. http://www.koconutgrove.co.uk/chester/