With Bastille Day just around the corner – on Friday – Eileen Leahy thought it a good time to visit Tunbridge Wells’ newest French restaurant Coco Retro to see if it’s a good place to celebrate France’s National Day. Read on to find out if it has that certain culinary ‘je ne sais quoi’…
IN A town full of restaurants, a good offering of French eateries has been rather lacking in Tunbridge Wells of late.
Yes, you can find establishments with menus that feature the odd Gallic dish, but there aren’t many that are solely dedicated to serving up the gastronomic delights of our cousins across the Channel.
Thankfully, though, Francophiles can rejoice as Tunbridge Wells has a brand new bistro called Coco Retro which hopes to establish itself as the town’s go-to destination for fans of French food, with a particular emphasis on indigenous dishes from northern France and Paris.
Situated in Vale Road, opposite Tunbridge Wells station, Coco Retro opened in April this year, and since launching has enjoyed somewhat of a buzz as well as a steady, bustling
trade – both at lunch and at dinner time. French friends living in the area rave about its ‘genuine ambience’ and ‘delicious traditional food’, while on social media, photos of its eye catching glimmering goldbar and vintage accordions hanging from the exposed brick walls have been clocking up lots of ‘likes’.
When I pay the restaurant a visit one Saturday night with my husband, I can instantly see why it’s creating something of a stir. Walking inside its smart period building, you find Coco Retro both warm and welcoming. People already dining there are clearly having a good time thanks to the soundtrack of loud chatter, clinking cutlery and French crooners singing away on a CD being played in the background.
This intimate feel is further enhanced by the snug restaurant’s cosy corners and rows of mahogany tables, which bear all the hallmarks of a classic French bistro: White napkins, gleaming silver cutlery, Duralex Picardie tumblers and wooden, café-style chairs. Upstairs there is a smaller eating area which is dedicated to fine dining.
As well as the gold-studded metal circular bar, which is adorned with exotic liqueur bottles, there are other indicators that much aesthetic attention to detail has been paid to ensure a bona fide French feel is achieved. These include black and white diamond floor tiles, banquette seating, and a selection of chic black and white prints of famous faces – including legendary actor Jean Paul Belmondo – hanging on the walls.
So, ten out of ten on the look and feel of the place, but will the food be as genuine and impressive? A cursory glance at the menus would suggest that, yes, the owners have done their homework when it comes to offering up tasty and traditional dishes.
Les entrées include staples such as cured charcuterie and gherkins (£7.15) and filet steak tartare (£8.95) while the mains – or Les Plats – include moules frites (£14.95) and endives gratinée (£14.95), a good vegetarian option. I also note that all the fish is supplied by Sankey’s and that the restaurant sources its meat from Fuller’s Butchers.
To start, I choose the French onion soup (£5.95) while my dining companion is braver and goes for les escargots au beurre à l’ail et persil – the not-so-romantic sounding in English snails in garlic butter and parsley (£6.95). Both are served to us swiftly and are a treat for the tastebuds.
My soup has a pleasant hint of sweetness courtesy of its rich caramalised onions and delivers a creamy, salty crunch thanks to the cheese-soaked croutons.
I pluck up the courage to sample one of the snails and I’m pleasantly surprised by how good they taste thanks to the garlic, herby kick to them. They are a bit like a cross between a morsel of chicken and a mussel. As we sip on our carafe of chilled house white wine, my husband and I happily strike up a conversation with the people at our neighbouring table. They have just dined on one of the house specials – Ribeye Steak Coco (£22.95) – which they declare as being ‘robust’ and ‘perfectly chargrilled’.
The service at Coco Retro is brisk and friendly, and so we’re soon presented with our ‘plats principaux’. I’ve opted for the Bouillabaisse (£17.95), a hearty fish stew from Marseille which is served in a rustic terracotta dish with toasted French bread or ‘tartines’.
It’s a very generous portion with large chunks of salmon, cod and a sprinkling of mussels and squid, and is wonderfully fragrant and spicy thanks to the rouille sauce, which is made with lashings of garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper. My husband has plumped for another house special: Lapin en cocotte – or rabbit stew – (£16.95), and says it’s a ‘hearty triumph’. The meat is expertly cooked, lean and falls off the bone into the accompanying meaty broth, which boasts a variety of vegetables, including carrots and potatoes. The dish also comes with two large chunks of fresh bread for soaking up the sauce. Now feeling pleasantly satisfied, we decline to even look at the pudding menu, which changes frequently, and have to look the other way when offered an immensely tempting cheese board.
In order to stay just a little bit longer, we decide to finish our evening ‘à la française’ with a brandy ‘digestif’, which we convince ourselves will help us digest all that wonderful food. Sipping our ‘petit cognacs’, we reflect on what has been a most delightful and long-awaited experience: To savour some good quality French food in pleasant surroundings in our home town. Merci Coco Retro et à bientot!
Coco Retro’s menu changes regularly and with the seasons and product availability. They also have special pre-theatre and dish of the day deals.