Olivia Potts appreciates the obvious care found in food and service at one of Chester's finest
I feel like I’ve gone about things back to front. I visited one of Manchester’s hottest new restaurants, Climat, a few months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed its accomplished cooking and sweeping views. But before Climat, there was Covino: the Cheers to Climat’s Frasier, smaller and less in-your-face (not least because it’s in well-mannered Chester).
Watching the chef spoon, fry, toss, plate and garnish is a soothing sort of ASMR
Covino and Climat are very much sisters, not twins. There are themes that run through both restaurants: retro touches (in this case, gougères rather than vol au vents), good wine. But Covino is a lot more easy-going. It’s also tiny: under 20 covers, with just one chef manning a small open kitchen, so close to the diners he could cut out the middlemen and pass the dishes right to you.
Happily, that chef is preternaturally calm. Watching him spoon, fry, toss, plate and garnish is a soothing sort of ASMR (aka Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response). As our evening wanes and the kitchen closes, he clears down methodically while shaping bread into bannetons for an overnight proof, all without an ounce of fuss.
Let’s start with that bread, then. I don’t agree with the admonition “Don’t fill up on bread” anywhere, but particularly not here. Covino’s bread has a subtle malted sweetness; it’s crunchy and soft in all the right places, and served with ‘house butter’ (thyme and confit garlic) that tastes like summer in Provence. Alongside it, I drink a Champagne and oyster gin martini, which has more of a blustery and briney English seaside vibe to it. The combination makes for the perfect start to a meal.
Gougères are the only permanent fixture on a nightly changing menu, and it's easy to see why. These aren’t the bitesize puffs of cheesy air that you inhale standing up at a corporate event. They are behemoths: huge, sprawling choux buns, craggy and heavy with comté, that pulls, protractedly, reluctantly from the soft bun. They’re great, obviously, but they also say something about Covino: that when it comes to proper old school cooking, they’re not fucking about.
The specials board only reinforces this. Today, there’s whole hake head (“Not as disgusting as it sounds,” our host assures us) and lamb sweetbreads, which come in a choux bun with a madeira jus. Now, I’ve just had a choux bun, but there’s no way I’m not going to order sweetbreads when I see them on a menu. They’re fantastic: perfectly tender and creamy, swimming in a glossy sea, with a brunoise of root vegetables. The bun is giraffe-spotted with delicate not-too-sweet craquelin, the gravy-soaked base wonderfully soggy, like the bread you sweep up with after a roast.
But it’s not just the old-fashioned stuff. The ‘BBQ hispi’ is standout: floppy leaves of cabbage, so tender you could cut them with a spoon, topped with crunchy, nubbly, sunflower seeds, and a thumpingly good sweet, smokey miso dressing. The whipped tofu underneath is good enough to briefly make me contemplate veganism.
The Jerusalem artichokes, on the other hand, sightly miss the mark. I love the idea: they’re roasted until collapsing, and sat on a salsa verde dotted with labneh, like a poshed-up potato skin. But the centre of the tuber is too firm, refusing to squidge as you bite into it, and the sharp salsa and sour labneh undermine each other.
It’s only a blip, and when the gurnard ceviche – dressed with pretty pink radishes and kumquat – arrives, all is forgiven. The honey-sweet, sour-tang of the kumquats is the perfect foil for the mild, meaty fish, and the slightly sulphurous, crisp radish.
Of course, we order pudding – warm rice pudding, and ‘cold apple crumble’ – but when two generously filled bowls arrive at the same time, we protest. “We couldn’t possibly finish those!”
Ten minutes later, both bowls are scraped clean. The apple crumble involves espuma-ed custard, a sweet crumb, and a deep layer of soft, cool, chartreuse-coloured apple below, and its name does it a disservice, pitting it against a comfort food that needs no reinventing. But the dish, on its own merits, is gorgeous, the apples as bright in flavour as they are in colour, the custard light and delicate. The rice pudding, meanwhile, is played straight, and is excellent for it, criss-crossed with hot pink rhubarb.
Covino doesn’t have the pomp or the views of Climat, but it certainly holds its own when it comes to cooking and service. For me, it’s also a more comfortable place to spend your evening. The team’s care and quiet skill runs through everything, from the wine list to the plating. And I bloody loved it.
Covino, 118 Northgate Street, Chester, CH1 2HT
About the writer
Olivia won the Fortnum and Mason Debut Food Book of the Year in 2020, as well as Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the year. She also writes Spectator Life's Vintage Chef column for The Spectator magazine. She has two books in print, A Half Baked Idea and Butter: A Celebration.
Follow Olivia on Twitter @_Poots_ or on Instagram @ahalfbakedidea
Malted bread and house butter 10 Gougères 9 Hispi cabbage 9 Jerusalem artichokes 6 Gurnard ceviche 8 Lamb sweetbreads, choux bun, madeira jus 8 Rice pudding and rhubarb 8 Cold apple crumble 8