Joanna Blyth­man re­views First Coast

Joanna Blyth­man

Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.