I’ve been handed a free yakitori voucher as I pass Coconut more times than I’ve been chugged outside Marks and Spencer. In the two months since it opened, Coconut has done a sterling job of making people aware of where it is (on the Butts. Don’t laugh) and what it does (yakitori, apparently) so is this long enough for them to have settled in and found their feet? Of course, there’s only really one way to find out.
Inside, past the young man in a pinny handing out those ubiquitous Coconut business cards, the restaurant itself is a long wide room with a bar at the front and smart seating further back. Seating is a mixture of booths, banquettes and high tables all in chocolate and that shade of lime that isn’t too hard on the eyes. I love a booth and on a weekday night it was quiet enough to grab one. At the time I forgot that I’d be taking photos or I would have sat on the other side, against the attractive white brickwork, under the skylight, but you can’t have everything.
The placemat menus list a total of fifteen different yakitori, mostly around the £4 mark. It seemed only fair to pick a selection and try them out, after all yakitori is their speciality (even if this was only supposed to be a starter).
The best of the bunch was the Kim’s Belly, four cubes of pork belly threaded onto a bamboo skewer then chargrilled just enough to make the meat tender without being chewy. This in itself was good but none too exciting until you add their “special Kimchi sauce”. This didn’t resemble the Korean kimchi pickles that most people would recognise but was more like a chilli sauce with hints of five spice and the slightly sour taste of lime. This lifted the pork enough for me to overlook the thick layer of fat that I had to cut off the meat before I was prepared to eat it (I am not sure my guest was so discerning – each to their own, I suppose). With two skewers on the plate this seemed like a generous portion for the price and was the best of the yakitori we tried. I wasn’t sure what the asparagus and yellow pepper was doing on there with the pork but I ate it all the same.
And the rest? The chicken teriyaki was decent enough but looked a lot like something I might have rustled up myself for a summer barbecue – the meat was thigh which had been bundled onto the skewers in varying sizes and looked a little, well, unloved. The spring onion had over-wilted in the heat and so became a bit limp but had just enough flavour to go with the chicken and the teriyaki sauce. Mongolian beef was much the same, with oddly shaped cuts of beef roughly pushed onto the skewers with chunks of red pepper and courgette in between. It was strangely inconsistent – most of the meat was beautifully tender and soft but a few bits were distinctly chewy. How two pieces of meat, neighbours on a single skewer, could be so different I have no idea. Overall they were good, but no better than a similar dish at Yo! Sushi or Wagamama – I was expecting more smokiness, more char, more complicated flavours.
None of this, though, compares to the disappointment of the shiitake mushrooms “flavoured with Japanese shichimi”. The yakitori menu has a picture of some beautiful mushrooms, cut in half, rammed onto a skewer, glistening with sauce and marinade: looking at them made me positively ravenous. These pale specimens were not them. They ranged from raw to flabby and it was hard to taste the seven spices over the coating of oil on the mushrooms – mushrooms which, incidentally, appeared to be bog standard chestnut mushrooms.
You’ll be glad to hear that the mains were a step up from the below par yakitori. Thai basil chicken was very pleasant, if the stuff of Thai restaurants across Reading and beyond. None the less, it was done well – a gorgeous rich sauce, nice bits of chicken (discernable chicken, not dubious bouncy chunks), fragrant cubes of aubergine and delicious crunchy asparagus, all served with some unremarkable coconut rice. All this would have been perfect if it hadn’t come on the same ribbed, rippled plates as the yakitori. For the yakitori, it made sense – little trenches for your extra sauce to drain away – but for eating a dish with rice and sauce it was silly, faffy and by the end made me want to hurt myself. Some people don’t like eating off slate, some people object to the wooden boards that are all the rage at the moment. For me, it’s plates like this: the sound of my fork scraping along the grooves was like nails down a blackboard.
Much, much better was the chicken Dolsot Bibimbap (take that, spellchecker!) It was delicious. It was a “blistering hot” – the menu’s words, not mine – stone cauldron, sitting in a wooden frame (which makes it rather resemble a potty – sorry, but it does) filled with coconut rice topped with sautéed vegetables, chicken and an egg, sunny side up with a little dish of that kimchi sauce on the side. Random, eh? The waitress suggested that it was best stirred all together so I dutifully did the honours and turned it into what was basically a stir fry. Without the kimchi sauce the whole affair was magnolia fried rice, but the sauce transformed it into a really tasty bowl of goodness full of carrot, cucumber, mushrooms, shredded seaweed, cabbage and bean sprouts. (I think. I can’t remember in all the excitement). The sauce added richness and spice and maybe this makes me sound about five, but it was fun to stir in and mix up. Each forkful was different and towards the end the coconut rice became nuttier and slightly crisp in places as it kept cooking in the dish. I’m not sure I’d describe it as blistering hot, but I certainly wasn’t going to touch it and put that to the test.
Service throughout was good, if not notably so. The staff seemed to cover all of the tables so there was no continuity of service but everyone was friendly and happy to explain the idea behind Coconut and the yakitori. Despite that we decided not to go for dessert – partly because we were full but mainly because the dessert menu really didn’t look that interesting (crème brulée, a “trio of chocolate desserts”, ice creams of unspecified origin). Instead we finished up our drinks (a half decent Australian Shiraz and a Kirin Ichiban in a frosted glass, which rather reminded me of being on holiday in Greece) and got the bill. The total for four yakitori, two mains and two drinks was forty-one pounds which struck me as decent value (even if we hadn’t had a yakitori free – most of the mains are around a tenner).
I wonder how Coconut will fare. It seems to want to be a cocktail bar, do light bites (I saw a lot of yakitori arriving at other tables and I can see why – the mark-up on them must be very healthy) and be a restaurant all at once. The last restaurant in that spot, Glo, had quite a similar game plan and didn’t make a go of it. It’s also a surprisingly big place – the room goes so far back I half expected to walk all the way and emerge in Narnia – and that’s a lot of covers to fill in what I imagine is an expensive central location. Having eaten here I found myself wishing that Coconut was making more of its mains, because if they’re all as good as the best one I had they could properly compete with Tampopo and Wagamama – well, they could if they weren’t so obsessed with skewers, anyway. Still, I can’t rule out making a return visit and going straight for the bibimbap. Even if I can’t pronounce it.
Coconut Bar & Kitchen – 6.8
62-63 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG