Joanna Blythman reviews First Coast
MONDAY evening, 6.30pm, and we’re not the first to arrive at First Coast, but we do still manage to bag a table next to the fire. OK, it’s not a real fire, more of an urban coal-effect job, but it does the trick of making the place cosy and convivial. The steady stream of people that turn up over the next hour and more or less fill the place aren’t so lucky, but then First Coast is less a restaurant than a series of rooms, each with its charms.
No-one is dressed up to the nines, or here for the nightlife. More likely, they simply want a good, reasonably priced meal, and First Coast has a reputation for delivering that with some reliability. Eavesdropping informs us that the people at the table across from us are pretty interested in food. Their conversation drifts from Michelin stars, through the defects of sloppy lasagne, to the best black puddings and the technique of stir-frying. In fact, food literacy rates seem to be high in these parts. I ask our nice, relaxed waitress what fish are in the Cioppino – described as a rich tomato Californian seafood stew – just in case it includes farmed salmon, which I boycott. She knows without checking with the kitchen. She has the unflappable cool of an old hand who tastes and understands the dishes.
We toy with the warm soft rolls with a grey-beige crumb, sweetish like brioche. Then come the fish pakora, implanting the thought in my head that the cooking here is on a higher level than I had anticipated. My, but they’re good, and it’s down to several issues: clean oil, exciting spicing (bold chilli that tingles the tip of the tongue, fruity cracked coriander, cumin seed); very fresh fish. But it’s the whole package too, the earthy pea and coconut mash on which they sit, the ribbons of something red and pickled (onions, beetroot, radish?) that cut the heat of the spices and the furriness of the mash. Across the table there’s a perceptibly smoky aubergine zaalouk (Morocco’s tomatoey, lemony riposte to baba ganoush). It’s served at ambient temperature, so the infusion of flavours isn’t obscured. The accompanying flatbread tastes homemade. It’s also slightly smoky, and criss-crossed with charred lines.
The aforementioned Cioppino demonstrates more boldness. The fish – hake, I think, two plump prawns, and a handful of mussels – sit in a deep, terracotta-coloured, stewy cherry tomato and reduced red wine sauce that’s hot (possibly with peppercorns as well as chilli), fruity with maybe a curl of orange zest, and bright leafy coriander. It reminds me of the Italian Adriatic speciality, brodetto. A scattering of Sardinian fregola tames its intensity.
Gnudi – an Italian ricotta and semolina version of gnocchi (First Coast tests your gastronomic vocabulary) – form the basis of an original vegetarian dish. Cheesy and farinaceous, they’re teamed up with discs of baked sweet potato, slivers of avocado, a sharply dressed salad of mandolinefine fennel, lamb’s lettuce and broken walnuts. There’s plenty of contrasting texture, and when you get a mouthful that includes all the various elements, they come together to make a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts.
First Coast has a forward thinking menu. This isn’t a restaurant that follows the pack, or apes culinary traditions that it doesn’t understand. You can see the kitchen’s interest in more arcane, less commonly encountered dishes, but again that food literacy clicks into place, so such dishes are rendered with the respect for tradition that they deserve.
And if I’m still weighing up my score for First Coast, two sophisticated, adult desserts are the clinchers. I’m cooing with approval at the zabaglione and meringue semifreddo, which comes with a purple baked fig on top. I don’t even like meringue, but it lends ballast to the eggy, Marsala mass that liquifies in the mouth so gorgeously. Flourless chocolate cake – barely sweet, slightly salty, moistly tepid – finds its foil in its accompanying strawberry sorbet, which has a persuasive taste of ripe strawberries and leaves an elderflower finish.
And you get all this in an unassuming neighbourhood restaurant at very approachable prices. You can’t ask more.