Coventry’s food scene often gets a bad rap – I’ve heard people say it’s full of chains, there are no decent independents, and it’s lagging behind other cities. But I’m afraid I have to disagree.
Yes, perhaps Cov may lack some certain types of restaurant – fine dining perhaps, and maybe there could be more quality mid-range dining options. But that’s only half of the story. Because tucked away in Coventry are a whole slew of wonderful restaurants that fly under the radar.
Some have been there for years, many offer cuisine from around the world, and while they might not have huge PR budgets, big social media profiles and a huge online presence, they are regularly busy, offer great food, and are about as independent as it gets.
I thought I was pretty well-acquainted with Coventry’s food scene, taking time to seek out a fair few of its independent offerings with plenty more on my list to get to. But I’ve since realised I was actually pretty ignorant of loads of these restaurants until I actually started spending more time in the city and listening to people in the know. Since then I’ve found proper, real Cantonese places, great Sushi, passionate people doing good modern British food, and much more more.
Among those sit Jinseon. I’d actually heard about it and spotted it opposite BBC CWR’s headquarters on days I’d had a jaunt there, but had never been in. It was only after hearing great things from people in the know that I bumped it to the top of my Coventry list and mum and I waltzed in after an afternoon in the city for some early food.
We arrive literally as they are opening and people are already queuing up. Clearly a popular place. What ensues is a bit of a whirlwind, but we find ourselves sat at a table peering nervously at the hole in the middle that’s soon to be the home for our own personal barbecue complete with metal grill for cooking and volcanic-temperature coals underneath.
The menu reflects the frenetic feel to Jinseon. There’s Korean fried chicken, small plates and ‘Seoul soups’, plus Budae Jjigae, described as a ‘korean-american fusion stew derived after the Korean war’. Rice and noodles are the most familiar dishes, but it’s the barbecue we’ve come for – which sits pride of place on the menu and includes a side-kick section of ‘MUST-HAVE WITH BBQ’ – written just like that to make sure you know you’re being instructed to do exactly as it says.
With no idea how much food you get, we play it safe and swerve the meat platter, opting for some chicken thighs and barbecue pork shoulder.
All barbecue dishes come with lettuce, kimchi, scrambled egg and cheesy sweetcorn, so we commit a cardinal sin and ignore the shouty section of barbecue sides. We do, however, get tempted into ordering a bulgogi beef with rice, just to try it. There’s plenty of choice for drinks so mum can tuck into a bucket of scarily-coloured cocktail that is sickly sweet but thoroughly enjoyable, while I sip a diet coke and look on enviously.
The barbecue arrives in a whirlwind of activity yet very little explanation, but we decide we can figure it out by watching the seasoned pros around us. It all seems quite simple. Meat comes on a plate, with implements for piling it on to the grill over the hot coals.
At the same time, the ring around the grill is filled with cheesy sweetcorn on one side, and on the other a strange liquid that is poured into it. We try both and don’t much like them – a view we change 20 minutes later when we realised the liquid is the scrambled egg and it needed to be left so it could cook, and the cheesy sweetcorn is much nicer when hot and melted rather than cold. Beginners errors hey.
The barbecue bit itself is fairly easy. The meat is thin and cooks quickly, gaining that lovely char and distinctive taste that comes from cooking over coals.
We soon get into the rhythm of it, quickly feeling like this definitely isn’t our first Korean barbecue rodeo. Until one of the waitresses marches over to pull down the extendable extractor fan above us so it actually sucks up the smoke that’s billowing over our table rather than sitting idle. Another learning point for the list.
We chow down on the meat with crispy lettuce and bucketloads of the great spicy sauces that sit on the table. I’m already planning a return trip for the other offerings on the barbecue menu, because undoubtedly this will be a great way to eat pork belly and cumin spiced lamb, though we debate whether I’d actually ever order the ox tongue option.
We may not have come for the bulgogi beef, but we’ll definitely be coming back for it. Tender, thinly sliced strips of beef in a lip-smackingly tasty sauce full of onions, peppers, carrots and plenty of soy. It has us reaching for more with increasingly speed and despite initially thinking we might need a doggy bag, the bowl is virtually licked clean by the time our table comes to be cleared.
Never one to resist desserts, Mum refuses to leave without trying one of Jinseon’s ice creams. It’s soft serve in a glass along with a handful of oreos and more chocolate on top. It’s insanely simple and feels like the perfect full stop to the experience.
We leave not much more than an hour after we arrive and it’s now full, with the queue at the door getting ever longer. Lava-hot barbecues are everywhere, with the fizz of cooking meat just one part of the orchestra that provides the soundtrack to Jinseon, layering over the hum of conversation, the karaoke-style pop music blaring from TVs, the clatter of dishes and the barked orders between staff.
I’ve already used ‘frenetic’ but there is no better way to sum it up. Yet it’s in a good way. Jinseon has an energy that makes you feel excited to be there. It’s different from any experience I think I’ve ever had, and is a reminder that Coventry’s melting pot of cultures is expressed in no better way than through its food scene.
It may not have Michelin stars, awards, and a swanky new opening every week, but Coventry has heart. It has real people cooking their own food and serving it up to an audience who will happily queue up to experience it. And it’s all there for the taking. Sometimes you’ve just got to look for it.
[We paid in full at Jinseon. They didn’t know I was a blogger]