Sophie Rahnema gets cinematic on a trip to Chester
Completely off my radar until news broke about the new Climat restaurant coming to town, Covino is the quietly confident wine bar that I’m sure residents would prefer everybody kept a secret. Yeah, cheers Marina O’Loughlin for calling it a “glorious place” in a review of nearby Hypha last year, locals might be thinking. Thanks, Michelin for putting it in your guide. Now everyone and their dog will want to go there.
I could lean over from my seat at the bar and poke the chef on the arm.
Despite the preceding hype, I walked straight past the front door when I touched down in Chester. Swooshing down the street in my usual fashion, looking for hoards of people, a queue, perhaps? I find no such thing, but it is still early in the evening.
A tasteful canopy hangs over the front of the shop, and it is under here that a lone man is sat, dragging slowly on a cigar whilst sipping on a drink. His motorbike is parked on the street, and I feel as though I have wandered onto a movie set.
Inside, Covino is small and although people fill all the seats in the bar slash restaurant, the place is full of light and air. Painfully cool, nonchalant air with a faint hint of the man’s cigar.
The kitchen here is totally open. I could lean over from my seat at the bar and poke the chef on the arm. Despite manning a scorching yakitori grill and preparing every single plate alone, he is an unusually composed man. In charge of his domain. Grilling and slicing and stirring and plating. All in his own time, all while wearing a delightful floral t-shirt. Above him, a sticker is displayed on an extractor fan hood with a photo of Prince Andrew. “Nonce,” it reads in a large Supreme-style font.
I have ordered de rigueur small plates, to share of course, from the specials and the small menu. Food on offer changes daily. A phrase I have become extremely familiar with writing, and a concept I am now on board with after some years of objection to having to share food. The chef, Luke, describes his style as “Parisian ex-pat” a tribute to the many nationalities found in the kitchens of Paris.
I wonder how many people’s eyes light up when they see pork scratchings. A few in our office I should imagine. I discovered them in my early teens when my step-dad would bring shiny gold packets home from the corner shop. Salty, stinky, addictive little things curled up like snails, dusted in pork flavour. Grotesquely bad for you. My mother would be beside herself.
Pork scratchings here (£7) are different, obviously. A pile to accompany a lovely dollop of smooth taramasalata with a swamp-like pool of dill oil in the middle is light and pale and delicate. The satisfying crunch of early-onset gout is perhaps lost, but the nostalgic premise still lives on.
From my seat at the bar, I can see the inner cogs of Covino turning. Friends arrive with gifts for owners and bar staff, glasses are polished and familiar small-talk is exchanged. I’m told I have a Manchester twang to my accent, and we get talking about the new Climat which will sit atop Blackfriars. It’s been in the works for around nine months, and the team are excited to get going on something much larger to get their teeth into.
A plate of Guinea fowl and pork terrine (£7) is picked up by a waitress and brought on its perilous 1.5-metre journey to where I am sitting. A no-frills example of the dish. A slab wrapped in thick bacon. It is accompanied by a chicory marmalade, sweet and dark like dried figs.
A flurry of fascinators bobbing past the window is the only clue I get that we are in Chester. The crowd here is much more likened to that of a larger city like Manchester or Liverpool, and the food, cool and understated, has a similar feel.
Monkfish (£20.50) tail gets the yakitori treatment from our man behind the pass, paired with a tumble of fresh, barely touched, crunchy turnips. A smoke-imbued squidge of yoghurt mirrors the sticky, smoky flavour of the fish from the Japanese grill.
Pork, belly this time (£17), delivers with a golden arch of crackling whose richness is cut through with a pickled giardiniera-style dressing of cucumber and gooseberry. These playful flavours and textures are served in such a laissez-faire fashion that I almost don’t realise how wonderful they are. Just another day at the office for the guys at Covino, created from whatever they had in.
I’ve paired my dinner so far with two glasses of Greek Moscomavro which is light and fresh and promises flavours of an Ionian vacation. And I’m wearing my white jeans, so one sip of this and holiday mode is officially activated.
Covino is first and foremost a wine bar and is proud of its 100-plus collection of bottles behind the counter. Today, Emily is happy to wax lyrical to me about her wine, but I am sold as soon as she starts describing this lovely bottle.
There are two desserts on the menu and I order both. One, a cold rice pudding with loquat jam (£7.50), is surprisingly wonderful on a warm evening. The texture, cool and creamy is giving school dinners, but the soft fragrance of the Japanese plum whisks me away to the far east.
My favourite is white chocolate ganache with macerated strawberries (£7.50). The description on the menu fails to mention the puddle of olive oil or black pepper that dresses the silken quenelle in the bowl but I’m so glad to have found it. The flavours together are magical.
The peril of an early dinner is the feeling of having to leave just as the evening is getting into full swing, and that is how it feels here tonight. The chatter is intensifying, and the wine is flowing and now I have to say goodbye.
"Out anywhere else this evening?" Emily asks as I gather my bits and pieces.
"Just back to Manchester," I say, thinking about the drive home.
"Well, we'll see you soon then I suppose."
Covino 118 Northgate St, Chester CH1 2HT
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Pork scratchings 8, terrine 7, monkfish 8, pork belly 8, rice pudding 8, white chocolate ganache 9
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