I’ve always liked Côte’s food. And I’m a big fan of eating nice meals at home, especially when the wind is howling outside and the garden is relentlessly battered with rain. So this week, I thought I’d see whether it’s possible to appreciate both at the same time.
Côte’s always been arguably my favourite of Reading’s chains and if the last two years had been anything like the two before that, I’ve no doubt that I’d have eaten there a fair few times. Grabbing one of their outside tables on a sunny day for their prix fixe when I couldn’t be arsed to cook, for example, or having a weekend brunch there and enjoying their soft, crumbly boudin noir. And if they’d been on delivery apps, you can bet you’d have read a review of that last year.
But Côte chose a different path, an interesting one that differs from most other chains – and most other restaurants, come to that. Instead of doing takeaways, in the summer of 2020 Côte launched Côte At Home, offering a subsection of their menu that can be easily heated at home. It makes sense, when you think about it: Côte prepared some of their meals in a central kitchen and finished them in the restaurant as it was, and this model converted what you could see as a pre-pandemic weakness into a distinct advantage after Covid-19 struck.
My experiences of heat at home restaurant kits, especially this year, usually left me thinking that I’d eaten a glorified ready meal at inflated prices. Côte offers a simplified version at far closer to ready meal prices, so I wanted to see if they made a case for a better heat at home model. And pricing isn’t the only difference between Côte’s model and operators like Dishpatch. They clearly benefit from scale because they deliver every day, with free delivery if you spend over forty pounds. You have to order forty-eight hours in advance, although some items qualify for express delivery, which means they reach you quicker.
It isn’t difficult to spend forty quid. Everything is crazily affordable – think five pounds for starters, ten to fifteen for mains, and a fiver for dessert – but they also sell a good range of French cheeses, plenty of wine and beer, steak, sausages and confit duck. The latter comes in at an astonishing four pounds fifty a leg, making it miles better value than my meh-fest at Andrew Edmunds. I picked up a three course meal for two, and added a couple of bottles of Meteor to nudge it over the forty pound threshold (it’s a shame they don’t add their Breton cidre to the website: they’re missing a trick there).
Another contrast between my previous restaurant DIY kit experiences and Côte At Home was how user-friendly delivery was. With the others, you pay over ten pounds for delivery and essentially, they reserve the right to turn up at any point during the day. With Côte At Home, if you pay five pounds they’ll make sure it reaches you before noon. So lo and behold, it was with me first thing in very natty packaging. Inside the box there were an impressive four ice packs, and everything was fetchingly branded. A slip inside explained that literally all of the packaging was recyclable, too. Stowing it all away in the fridge I felt properly curious and excited about the meal that lay ahead, even if it’s the hope that kills you.
This meal gave me an excuse to try out Côte At Home’s bread, which you finish off in the oven. Back in the day – by which I mean 2014 – I thought that Côte’s bread was the best in Reading, and although many bakers, artisan and otherwise, have wafted through town in the last eight years I still think Côte’s beats most restaurants round here, so I wanted to see how the heat at home stuff compares. And the answer was reasonably well – not up there with, say, Geo Café’s sourdough baguette straight out of the oven that morning (not much hits that exalted standard) but far better than the pasty part-baked baguettes you pick up from a supermarket. They throw in some salted French butter: a nice touch, but really we’d bought the bread to pair with our two starters.
Of the two, as so often, Zoë’s was better. Smoked salmon rillette was properly lovely stuff, a very generous portion in a handsome ceramic pot (“that will be handy for olives”, she said later) with just enough smoked salmon in the mix to give it a wonderfully wintry taste without overpowering matters. It was a model of simplicity – fish, crème fraîche, capers, shallots and herbs – and extremely good value at four pounds fifty. Most of the Côte at home starters are chilled, with a couple you either heat up on the hob or in the oven, but this one struck me as the pick of the bunch.
It was certainly nicer than my chicken liver parfait, also served in one of those pots. And don’t get me wrong, it was earthy, smooth and reasonably indulgent. But it was hidden under a permacrust of clarified butter that was a little too thick and too much like hard work. And fundamentally it just wasn’t the smoked salmon rillette: food envy had set in at that point, and nothing would redeem it. It did make me wish I’d ordered some cornichons to accompany it – a snip at two pounds – or better still, had the foresight to have some in the cupboard.
But again, to put this in perspective, if I’d been served this dish in a restaurant I’d have been quite happy with it. And in a restaurant it wouldn’t have cost five pounds. With all the restaurant kits I’d ordered so far it felt like the price was inflated for what you got – I’m sure Côte At Home benefit greatly from economies of scale, and having that central kitchen, but it does give you an idea just how cheaply you can deliver this model.
I’d like to say that the main course lived up to that promise, but it didn’t quite. Again, it was impressive value: a beef bourguignon for two people, with potato purée thrown in, set you back fifteen pounds, less than you’d pay for a single portion in a restaurant. But there was some inconsistency, both in how you cooked it and how it tasted. Some of Côte At Home’s dishes, like the potato purée, only come with instructions for microwave cooking and for those of us without a microwave that can be frustrating: you’d think they’ve had figured out alternative instructions by now.
That said, the potato puree – which I had to improvise, decant and heat up in the oven – was really very good. It was rich, silky and buttery: in short, far better than anything I could rustle up at home and streets ahead of anything you can buy in supermarkets. More expensive than an M&S “ultimate mash” (though not by much) but easily worth the money.
The problem was the bourguignon. In fairness, when I looked at it there in its plastic tray, brown sludge at the bottom and highlighter-pen-pink nuggets of bacon on top, I thought Oh dear, this just looks like a ready meal. And I was partly wrong, because some lovely alchemy happened in the oven and it came out thoroughly looking the part. And the taste was decent – the onions had softened and sweetened beautifully and the sauce, if thinner than I’d have liked, had all the right notes in the right order.
But a dish like this stands or falls on the star ingredient, and the beef was variable at best. One bit was so tough and fibrous that I gave up trying to cut through it, another was so unpleasantly gristly that I had to abort mid-chew. A dish like this about the right cuts of meat slow-cooked into submission, and there’s no excuse for something this bouncy or unpleasant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about” said Zoë. “All of mine was fine”. So it’s not all bad: if you order this you might get lucky, but don’t be surprised if your other half pulls faces.
We’d gone for a vegetable side of minted peas with baby onions and baby gem lettuce – and again, it only came with instructions for microwave cooking. It reheated just fine on the hob, though, and I liked the dish a lot – the peas still slightly nutty, the mint and garlic butter playing nicely together – but it was a tad annoying that they’d not thought about non microwave users. And the website could do more, I think, to highlight dishes that are microwave only than have a little sentence squirrelled away that says cooking instructions, ready to microwave. But again, a minor irritation in a pleasant, perfectly serviceable meal.
Although Côte At Home sells a tarte aux pommes – which you definitely don’t have to bung in a microwave – and a very tempting lemon posset, along with a cracking selection of cheese including Morbier, Roquefort and one of my very favourites, Saint Marcellin, Zoë and I both found it impossible to stay away from the chocolate mousse. And again, this was close to the restaurant experience at a far lower cost: for three pounds seventy-five you got a dish that would cost you one pound fifty more if you dined in.
And again, it was difficult to distinguish from the mousse I’ve eaten many times over the years at Côte. It was incredibly smooth and glossy, with either very fine bubbles or no bubbles at all, and if I had one criticism it would be that what’s described as a dark chocolate mousse feels about as dark as an episode of The Repair Shop. But looking back at my review of Côte eight years ago I ordered the chocolate mousse for dessert and said almost exactly the same thing. So you can hardly fault them for consistency.
So, with the exception of that unforgivably bouncy meat, Côte At Home was hard to fault. Incredibly generous portions, a routinely high level of quality, a supremely convenient delivery experience and great packaging. And of course you can add cheese, or wine, or confit duck to your order and suddenly it goes from a single meal in to a combination of a brilliant midweek supper and a trip to the deli. So why do I feel like there’s a slight underlying note of being underwhelmed in this week’s review? Do you feel that too?
I’ve been pondering that all week, and I think it comes down to the fact that a restaurant is so much more than its food. Part of they joy of eating in Côte, of what a treat it is, is how convivial it can be – the hubbub, the people watching – and that it can be done on the spur of the moment. It is, as eating out always should be, a bit of a special event. And takeaways can be like that too. I’m sure that at their best – although I’m yet to experience this myself – restaurant DIY kits also feel like a treat. And Côte At Home’s genius is also their biggest drawback: something about it feels unspecial. It really does sit in a new space between ready meals and takeaways, and it’s such a new space that I don’t really know how I feel about it.
And if you need any more evidence that this is an evolving area, you don’t have to look any further than Ocado. Because if you fire up your computer to place an order with Ocado (and if you do, I recommend the M&S “Our Best Ever Steak Pie”: it’s miles better than this week’s bourguignon) you’ll find some dishes from Côte At Home in there. You’ll also find options from Pasta Evangelists, another of the earliest ventures delivering restaurant quality food to your doorstep. And if they don’t appeal, you could just pick up a steak from Hawksmoor.
The lines are getting blurred, and with that come plusses and minuses; you can get fancier versions of the convenience you’re used to, but the experience of treating yourself might lose some of its magic. Convenience, I’m increasingly starting to think, often has that effect. So I would cautiously say that you should give Côte At Home a try. I’m sure I’ll use them again, if only to enjoy confit duck and potato gratin one midweek evening (with a selection of cheese for later on). But I do worry that we’ll reach a stage, to paraphrase George Orwell, where we’ll look from ready meal to DIY kit, and from DIY kit to ready meal, and from ready meal to DIY kit again, but already it will be impossible to say which is which.
Côte At Home
https://coteathome.co.uk (or via Ocado)