[Disclosure: I was invited to try the new evening meals at Tales of Tea at St Mary’s Guildhall in Coventry for the purposes of this blog. As ever, this is my honest opinion].
Before we get into this, let’s get all the silliness out of the way, shall we. ‘There’s nowhere to eat in Coventry’. ‘There are no independent restaurants in Coventry’. ‘It’s all chains in Coventry’. ‘Coventry is an ugly city’.
All of the above statements have one thing in common – they’re simply not true. And Tales of Tea at St Mary’s Guildhall is a fairly good illustration of that.
While Coventry might once have merited the criticism levelled at it over its appearance, architecture, and food scene, I’d challenge anyone to visit in 2023 and not recognise that it’s changed. Admittedly, there may still be a way to go compared to some other cities – Birmingham for example, or our northern friends Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool. But it’s a city on the up, and the past few years have seen an astonishing amount of investment.
That investment hasn’t just brought new developments and big shiny buildings, big-name chains from Wagamama and Five Guys to Cosy Club and Turtle Bay which, say what you will about them, do a pretty good job of drawing people in to a city and making them feel like it’s arrived when they set up shop there.
It’s also seen the revamp of some of the city’s most historic buildings. The Charterhouse has recently reopened after extensive refurbishment, and is now home to Glynn Purnell’s addition to the city, while Priory Row and other gatehouses are now boutique accommodation. And St Mary’s Guildhall hasn’t just been restored, but is now home to ‘‘Tales of Tea’ in its Undercroft.
Run by No Ordinary Hospitality Management (NOHM), which also operates Coombe Abbey Hotel, Tales of Tea started with lunches, brunches and afternoon teas, but now also offers an evening menu, so you can settle yourself in at weekends, surrounded by history galore, insulated from the noise of a busy Friday or Saturday night, and enjoy a modern British menu in a pretty unique setting.
I visit on a sunny Saturday night just as Cov city centre is getting going. My friends and I duck out of the sunlight and a packed courtyard thanks to an event upstairs into a cool, softly-lit haven of calm. The setting is undeniably impressive, but the service strikes a chord too. Attentive, knowledgeable and eager to please. Before we know it, we’re whisked away to our table and are choosing drinks as delicate little amuse bouches appear in front of us.
Cocktails are tempting, but when a wine list includes glasses of English sparkling it has to be done. Unless you’re designated driver like me, so instead you watch your friends nod as they take the first sip while you play make believe with a glass of tonic that the staff have kindly dressed up like a G&T so you don’t feel left out.
There’s a decent selection of dishes on the menu, which is three courses priced at £49 per person. It’s billed as seasonal and is well-pitched for the time of year – light, fresh and full of variety in what is obviously an effort to give something for everyone.
My started is simple but done well. Wye Valley asparagus with soft-yolked quails’ eggs and a wild garlic pesto that hits the spot to the point of having me mopping up the dregs with my finger. There’s a pile of green on top that I think I can do without, but it doesn’t offend me too much. That will change later on, but let’s not hold it against the asparagus.
‘Spring’ chicken two ways is the winner of our three mains. There’s a roasted crown – two well-seasoned succulent breasts, encased in crisp golden skin. They would be decent enough but it doesn’t stop there. A confit leg pressing is full of the darker meat, again perfectly seasoned and even more moist than its counterpart.
It comes with ‘butter braised potato’ that seems to me to essentially be a fondant. Two of them in fact – the portion definitely doesn’t feel meagre – but it’s a madeira, morel and baby leek sauce that brings the whole lot together. Slightly sweet, plenty of earthy savouriness, and a few added textures for the dish.
My friends aren’t as impressed. The roasted Norwegian cod is cooked pretty well, but my mate wants far far more of the curried coconut and king prawn broth that’s promised with it, or at least more than the one prawn she gets. My other friend’s twice-baked applewood cheese soufflé looks good and again is pretty well-executed, but just doesn’t seem to light up her world, perhaps due to a lack of seasoning, though the fact the souffle itself is underwhelming allows the red onion marmalade to really shine.
Don’t feel too sorry for them. By the time dessert comes the tables have turned. A sticky toffee pudding is a sugar-high inducing slab of rich pudding coated in sickly sauce, while a ‘Potted Jaffa Cake’ is tasty, clever and eye-catching all in one go. A chocolate flower pot, broken artfully to reveal ‘soil’ made of a light, silky chocolate mousse. It looks great and tastes better, a cacophony of textures and chocolatey delight that makes up for her main.
I, on the other hand, am the one with food envy this time. My forced rhubarb and apple tart looks pretty enough, though I can’t be 100% sure as it’s hidden under a pile of more green garnish. There are edible flowers too, perched on top, so I spent those initial moments that I would usually be digging into the tart, scooping up a first spoonful with a load of the custard, carefully removing the tangled ball of leaves and stalks and their petal decoration instead.
Once I’ve finally removed it, I’m hoping I’ll get that moment of luxuriating in fruit that’s the perfect balance of sweet and tart, sitting in buttery pastry with more sweet courtesy of the custard. It doesn’t quite go according to plan. The tart filling is tart as tart can be. I know this is the nature of rhubarb, but it’s too much – and could have been rectified with just a bit more sugar. The pastry’s decent, and there’s a crunch on top that contrasts nicely with the soft fruit, but the bitter tang is just too much, even with the custard.
It’s not the note I’d hoped to finish on, but I don’t leave Tales of Tea disappointed or vowing never to return. I think it’s perhaps their second dinner service when we go, so it’s inevitable that things might not be perfect or might need tweaking. Overall, it’s a decent dinner, and I don’t think £49 a head for a three course meal, including amuse bouche and bread, not to mention the setting and impeccable service, is a bad deal.
The menu is good, and while some dishes weren’t perfect, others were great. I’d order that chicken again in a heartbeat, or the Aubrey Allen steak and chips that I saw arrive on the table next to us. That chocolate pot thing would get it too.
While there, we had a gander at the brunch, lunch and afternoon tea menus, and they all sound great. In fact, my mum’s been for afternoon tea already and it got her seal of approval, which is no mean feat. Tales of Tea might not be perfect just yet, but it’s a great addition to Coventry City Centre with bags of potential and a team that clearly takes pride in what they’re doing and are keen to build the same reputation that they’ve built for Coombe Abbey and their other ventures. And with time and support, I reckon they’ll manage it.