What: South Indian Cuisine
Where: 27 Waterside , Brightlingsea, CO7 0AY
How Much: £20-£25 a head
When it comes to memories of a town, so many people associate my little corner of the world on the Essex Coast with that brilliant little Indian near the water. It’s called Kovalam, it was on my list of dinner resolutions for this year and it is certainly brilliant enough to warrant tacking the long and winding road into Brightlingsea for a curry night.
The restaurant itself is easy to miss, nestled in a previously residential building near the industrial/posh marina end of town depending on which direction you choose to look. It is pretty unremarkable in terms of Indian restaurants you find in the UK, with straight back chairs and impeccable place settings but is thankfully devoid of the seeming trend of weird blue neon strips and bubble lines around the bar. What is remarkable is the food here, which does veer away from the expected offerings one might assume of a standard curry house. Yes, you can have an onion bhaji and a chicken korma if you really need to, but they offer a proper range of vegetarian dishes as well as fish and seafood which (I am reliably informed) are indicative of the cooking traditional to the region of their namesake. I can’t comment much on the great nuances of South Indian cuisine, but I can tell you that at Kovalam I have never had a duff serving of anything at all. The food is obviously fresh and presented proudly, always aromatic and enticing if not necessarily beautiful. One of the greatest charms there is their glorious laminated menu books complete with kitsch educational snap shots of info on the ingredients used and what to expect from them. It might seem a bit funny and patronising at first but I like to think I learn something new whenever we go there, although the Mr insists I say the same thing about not knowing what tamarind actually was every time……….
A lot of the dishes favour mild, sweeter flavours with coconut and mango bases, making this an easy crowd pleaser if you have spice-phobics in your group. The Malabar range, cooked in a mild but complexly flavoursome roasted coconut sauce is incredibly tasty and easy eating if you don’t feel up to risking something with a bit more kick. And I say that as someone who usually hates coconut. The chicken Makhani is nothing short of lush, buttery indulgence and also very friendly for those of a chili sensitive palate. I would invite the heat seekers among us to join me further down the menu, however. The Koonthal Roast- a pretty simple dish of stir fried squid (yes I know it says roast) with lots of green chilli and curry leaves is well worth venturing away from the Curry Madras for. It is hot, but it is also clean and sharp with a genuinely belly warming finish that doesn’t burn your tastebuds out. Divine. Bulk it up with a Kerala Paratha which is basically a hefty dough pancake which is utter filth on your calroie load but so much tastier than your garden variety naan or chapati. If you have to go garden variety, at last upgrade it to their garlic naan here which is second to none. Low carbers might steer towards the frankly enormous mixed grill of kebab and tandoori meats (The Mr needs a doggy bag for this one). Weight Watchers will also be glad to see a shashlick on the menu too, which is very good and served with a really sharp and punchy salad packed with lemon and herbs. On lazy nights when it’s too far to walk the half mile down there (or put on a clean t-shirt) we have been know to order up their whole tandoori chicken for delivery which is always wonderful, tender and deeply satisfying. Especially if you eat it straight out of the bag infront of House of Cards! One should also take the time to have a good look through their sides and venture into something new. Although my mother, the daal afficionado, was not desperately thrilled with their lentil sides I think it’s nice enough, as are the expected popadums and spicy spuds but the mushroom bhaji is off the bloody scales: again simple and not fussy, just stir fried with a good amount of green chilli and tomatoes is it absolutely perfect. The vegetable menu at Kovalam is wide on the whole and you really don’t need to worry about bringing a vegan or two along with you as their is more than enough animal-free action here and it is sometimes better than the meat dishes.
The prices at Kovalam are always surprising reasonable and the portions although not dauntingly huge (other than the mixed grill) are more than enough to prompt taking your belt down a notch for the walk home. Like any restaurant the sundries and drinks can tot up a little if you let them but never to the point of pain. The wine list is not always reliable in terms of the menu being up to date but it is beyond me how most people can resist a pint of cobra with a curry, which is of course available. I’ve never made it with enough room for dessert there but a full meal with drinks and popadums has rarely gone over twenty quid a head on my watch, and if you are in the catchment for their takeaway service you can eat very well for about a ten to twelve quid each without any decrease in the quality of the food that is served in house.
Of all our local eateries, Kovalam gets the most of our local monies because you really can’t go wrong, it works for everything. Home late with house guests? Kovalam. Impromptu cheeky week-night-date-night on a budget? Kovalam. Step-dad’s birthday blow out dinner with wine aplenty? Kovalam. Lads’ night curry with extra Kingfishers all round? Kovalam. Pretending to be on a diet with a shashlick and a foot long fried dosa pancake? You know where to go.
You won’t find them online (other than the Just Eat site) but can call 01206 305555 to book.