There’s always a treasure at the centre of any maze. This restaurant is no exception…
Cove‘s existence only became known to me when they started following us on Instagram and/or Twitter. Ain’t social media just wonderful? Just when I thought I’d run out of places to eat in Southampton.
It is based in the SO14 region of the city, relatively near St. Mary’s Stadium. But it’s no wonder I’ve never seen it before. You have to navigate a labyrinth of warehouses, old pubs and the odd disused shop.
And then you see it. A yacht-strewn skyline that precedes the area known as Shamrock Quays. A large, comfortable-looking courtyard al fresco seating area, and Cove, in all its glory.
When I went, joined by my hopefully-soon-to-be-returning contributor, restaurant manager Connor Mackay, it was blaring sunshine, so we opted against sitting inside the spacious restaurant in favour of the outdoor seating, which was already quite busy by that stage of the afternoon.
On duty were two members of staff, about whom we had differing opinions. We both adored our Lithuanian waitress, who attended us in a very friendly, informal manner. However, when it came to the bartender, Connor was a bit more ambivalent. I initially ordered a Long Island Iced Tea to drink, to be told shortly afterwards that it would be 15 minutes before any cocktails could be made. Clearly, it wasn’t too much of a problem, as the bartender brought me one personally (see pictured), remarking that it was one of his favourites to make. Just as well, since it’s one of my favourite to drink. I enjoyed his candour and familiarity, but Connor wasn’t so impressed by his brashness.
The restaurant’s website only shows a sample menu, so what you actually get a choice of on the day has an element of surprise. Fortunately, the starters and mains were all looking rather good that day. In my infinite wisdom for a self-employed freelance journalist, and businessman (plus, you can now add novelist to that list), I chose the most expensive starter on the menu. Priced at a tongue-biting just-under-£12 was a plate of Sesame-roasted American Scallops (see pictured below), served with Ox Cheek and Pineapple Gel.
Pricey but perfect in every way. Breaking my own rules in the process – I rarely agree with mixing seafood and meat in the same dish, though I’m slowly coming around to the idea. The scallops were little pellets of perfection topped with sesame seeds (though not entirely sure why chef bothered, they did nothing for the overall flavour). The blobs of pineapple gel dotted around the plate, however, set the shellfish off stupendously.
How did they mix with the ox cheek? Both tasted delightful, but when you have two such different flavours on the same fork, I find it difficult to treat them as a combination. They’re better eaten separately, in my opinion.
For Connor, this was his first taste of scallops. He also had the decency to offer up a piece of his own starter – Deep-fried Calamari with Tabasco and Lime Mayonnaise (see pictured). None of your fried-from-frozen pieces here; these were prime, succulent rings of squid in a very light batter. No rubberiness about them whatsoever. And the mayonnaise was also gorgeous. I couldn’t personally detect the Tabasco in there, chef may want to chuck a few more drops in there for those who love a little spice in their life.
Our choice of main course was unanimous. We both could not resist, from the decent selection on the lunch menu, the Pan-seared Fillet of Hake, Chorizo Croquette, Fried Mussels, Red Cabbage Purée and Rapeseed Oil (see pictured below).
Just like a little painting, really. The first thing you’re probably thinking is “what the Hell is that grey stuff on the right?” Well, as far as either Connor or I could tell, that’s the red cabbage purée. How it turned out grey, we’ll never know. That was merely the conversation starter for this dish.
I could go on about the nice, meaty texture of the fish or how I could eat the little fried mussels like they were popcorn. But I won’t. Instead, we’ll talk about the Chorizo Croquette – that’s the real star of this show.
It’s the second dish I’ve had in the last couple of months with a meat-infused croquette on it (last time, it was venison at the Christchurch restaurant Loch & Quay). And while they were all very well, Cove set the bar at a new height. They could easily serve a few of them on their own. It was so light and fluffy on the inside, nicely crispy outside, and full of little chorizo pieces. The slight paprika infusion was not diminished at all. Simply gorgeous – would recommend to anyone (and try finding a recipe to serve at a barbeque or dinner party!)
Shocking as it may be, there’s more to come, in the form of dessert. As with many restaurants of its kind, there was only a limited selection. Five or six choices, plus a cheese board. The two that jumped out at us were a Deconstructed Lemon Cheesecake and Cove’s Chocolate Brownie. In fact, we were so torn that we thought “F*** it, we’ll have one of each and rotate.”
Well, this dish earned points just for its bright and colourful presentation. The thing that sticks out is something called Black Isomalt. Neither of us had a clue what it was, turns out it’s a sugar substitute. We weren’t enthralled by it – it was really there for the sake of presentation value and nothing else.
The brownies were sumptuously rich and chocolatey, helped along by the definitely homemade blackberry sorbet. The blueberry panna cotta, which was just a tiny, pale blue blob in a corner, was just as well eaten on its own. Overall, a good first half of the dessert course.
And now… ROTATE!
These deconstructed dishes are all the rage at the moment. So much so that I’m thinking that our dinner party this year will be themed around them. Presentation-wise, they can be a bit hit-and-miss. It’s a hazard from virtually being given carte blanche. A few splodges (horrible word) of lemon cheesecake filling with a piece of white chocolate stuck in each one, flanked by some blueberries. Then you have the ice cream – white chocolate and thyme-flavoured – sitting in a glass.
As a restaurant manager and former chef, Connor took issue with the glass primarily, questioning how they are getting away with having glass in the kitchen. He didn’t think too much of the overall presentation either, saying that, like the isomalt in the last dish, it was mostly there for its own sake. A bit too theatrical for him.
Also, since having become a father last year, he’s now full of dad jokes. He quipped that the ice cream was “a waste of thyme.” How many of you laughed? Leave a comment if you did…
That’s a lot of moaning about the presentation; I personally liked the dish for its flavours. I’m not hugely partial to lemon-based dishes, but this may have converted me. The cheesecake was not overpoweringly citric, instead it was nice and creamy and mixed with the white chocolate very well. I did have to agree with Connor’s comments, however. No point to the ice cream, or the glass it came in, for that matter.
If you’re thinking that dessert suddenly turned this review from good to bad, don’t be too concerned. The quality was undeniable and the chefs have a blatant talent for food styling, plus the service was really good (for one girl attending to every table). But put two opinionated culinarians in the same place and there are going to be casualties along the way.
Finally, the bill. The whole meal with three drinks each came to just under £100. Totally reasonable given the amount we had, and also with the surroundings in mind. It may be surrounded by an industrial estate, but Shamrock Quays is the jewel at the centre of the maze. Very deliberate luxury. Definitely go there for important occasions or attempts to impress.