Advantages Fantastic south Indian food that's cheaper than you'd expect
Disadvantages It was a bit soulless on a Tuesday evening
|Value for Money|
|Standard of Menu|
|Standard of Service|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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