[Disclosure: I was invited to The Loft for a complimentary meal for this blog.]
Coventry is on fire with new openings at the moment, it seems. From burgers to bars, a new place seems to be springing up every month. Among those is The Loft, a surprising and hugely welcome addition to the dining scene in the city.
Tucked away in Coundon, The Loft’s home is Rialto Plaza, a 1930s art deco building that’s had a multi-million pound makeover to form what its owners have called a “one of a kind community lifestyle venue”. It’s now home to a live music venue, flexible working space, the ‘Cozy Cinema Club’ and (the one you’re here for) The Loft.
Step inside and you can’t help but feel you’re somewhere just that little bit different. The journey upstairs honours the building’s art deco heritage alongside some touches that strike the right balance of funky and friendly and have what so many big chains can lack – a little flash of personality.
When it comes to the restaurant itself, the phrase ‘small but perfectly formed’ springs to mind. Tucked away at the top of the building, you could be anywhere. Neighbourhood restaurants are ten-a-penny in London but rarer outside of some of the bigger cities, yet this has that exact feel. Industrial yet cosy. The place where you can snuggle in a corner for a date, confide in a best friend over dinner, or laugh along with pals at the end of a hard week.
The menu is full of classics. The duck liver parfait and cured salmon you’d expect from somewhere that’s trying to appeal to the majority, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in my book. Ask the chef in charge and he’ll tell you that’s deliberate. At The Loft they know their audience.
They know that a restaurant like this has to win people’s confidence and loyalty before they start pushing them out of their comfort zone. A savvy move in my humble opinion and one that doesn’t mean they can’t offer classics with a bit of a twist, and execute those dishes brilliantly using great ingredients.
We start with a complimentary nibble of bruschetta topped with sundried tomato and tapenade. Simple but tasty – the theme of the whole evening. An arancini starter, shared between the two of us, was well done.
I may have mentioned this before, but Mummy Branagh has eaten arancini in Sicily so is particularly pernickety about it, and still gave this the thumbs up. More of that intense, sweet-tart sundried tomato flavour, balanced with mozzarella, and not stodgy in the slightest. The smoked paprika and cream sauce was more reminiscent of a romesco to me, but worked brilliantly with the arancini.
The size of the restaurant means that very quickly you can see the pride that’s in the open kitchen. The care taken in preparing and plating dishes is clear for all to see, and fills you as a diner with confidence in what you’re about to eat.
Mains are built on their centrepiece ingredients – lamb, chicken, fish, duck and vegetable, with the addition of classics like burgers and fish and chips as well as an (almost obligatory in many restaurants these days) array of steaks. The accompaniments are classic combinations, which arguably means these guys have nowhere to hide. No gimmicks, no clever combos – it’s literally all down to the execution.
I opt for chicken and it’s at this point that I’m won over by The Loft. Let’s be frank – it takes guts and quiet confidence to serve up what is essentially a chicken dinner and know it will impress. Good quality cornfed chicken, cooked right, with a decent thyme jus that clearly hasn’t cut any corners. Add parmentier potatoes with some root veg added into the equation and peas that I’d say were more crushed than puree’d as promised on the menu, but still delicious, and you’ve got yourself a chicken dinner packed with both flavours and finesse.
Mum goes for the lamb. A Moroccan-inspired tagine of slow-cooked shoulder full of smoky spice and tender as can be. The cous cous it comes with is delicate and light, coated simply in a herb butter and the whole dish is brought together with a yoghurt raita, making for a moreish delight that I may or may not have dipped my fork into a few times.
An asparagus side is another simple but well-executed treat. Tender with a bit of bite, and the joy of real hollandaise rather than the jar’d stuff you might get served in some establishments.
A pre-dessert of grapefruit sorbet is tangy and fresh, cleansing the palate and adding that extra touch that reminds you that no, you’re not just in another bar or cafe masquerading as a restaurant, but in a place that’s trying to take itself seriously whilst staying accesssible to everyone.
The dessert list is another shopping list of some of the most popular puds in British restaurants and why the hell not! Despite the temptations of chocolate fudge brownie and creme brulee, we share a lemon tart that I can safely say is the best I’ve ever had.
A light buttery base, rich creamy filling that’s the right balance of tart and sweet. The whole thing is perfectly-judged in flavour, texture and thickness, with a light topping of burnt sugar on top to finish it off. Add a scoop of ice cream and it’s simply sublime. The kind of dessert Gregg Wallace would wet his pants over, and he’d be right to do so.
Before we know it, a couple of hours have passed. The ambience is just right – a healthy bustle, backed by a decent soundtrack, full of people enjoying themselves. The service is good. The staff are clearly new, as they are in so many places, but what they lack in experience they make up for in an eagerness to please and what seemed to me to be a willingness to learn.
On our visit, the show seemed to me to be being run by the chef, who coordinated both the kitchen and front of house with a calmness and professionalism that fills me with confidence that The Loft might be around for a while. Long may it last.