What many smokers don’t realise is that many non-smokers really hate the smell of cigarettes. We particularly don’t like the smell of cigarettes while we’re eating and especially don’t like that smell emanating from the owner of the restaurant in which you’re eating as he places your dishes in front of you.
The owner of Cognac – the new French restaurant on Hull’s Chanterlands Avenue – clearly feels the need to nip out for a fag several times during the course of an evening, he does this discretely and it his right to do so. But he really should consider whether it is wise to serve his customers while still stinking of the last gasper he woofed down before returning to duty.
Rant over, back to the plot.
Khaled Bouhanech is a half French, half Algerian restaurateur from Marseilles. His family, he tells me, have been in the restaurant game for generations and now, after 15 years in Reading, he has moved to Hull to open Cognac. It’s a pleasant enough one-room affair that serves what the chef described to me (somewhat confusingly) as modern traditional French cuisine with a North African twist. As you may expect, they offer snails and mussels and paté and whatnot, but also you can find scallops with linguine or lamb shank with couscous, more of which anon. It’s certainly a long way from proper, strict French cookery but most cuisines are now hybrids, so I don’t have a problem with that. What disappointed me was that this is modern traditional French cookery with a twist but without much taste.
I went for a French onion soup starter; yes, I know it’s a clichéd choice but I wanted to see if they could handle the classics. They couldn’t. It had all the usual ingredients but no depth of flavour. Most chefs use a decent beef stock in French onion soup to give it a deep, rich taste. If there was beef stock in this one then it was bland. If there wasn’t, then maybe there should have been.
The other starter was croquettes de crabe, or crab cakes as us rosbifs would have it. They were only OK and came served with a lemon mayonnaise, which was also OK. That’s about it, nowt more to say.
Mains arrived surfing on another wave of fag stench but brought something of a pleasant surprise. Both were served with mouli (or mooli, or daikon, depending on your preference), a larger member of the radish family. It’s popularly used pickled in Asian cooking but I’ve never had it served with European dishes before and I now wish it was utilised more often. It’s peppery like watercress, has a texture like raw-ish potato but adds a very welcome flavour alternative to the usual selection of veg served with main courses.
Sadly it proved to be the highlight of both mains. Poulet à la moutard et au miel had very little about it. You’d think that smothering a chicken breast with mustard and honey would add a lot of taste, but somehow the kitchen seemed to have managed to subvert this presumption.
Similarly, with couscous Cognac they offered a cinnamon steamed lamb shank with couscous and veg drizzled with lamb and mouli juice and yet forgot to include any noticeable flavour. It was about the blandest lamb shank that I have ever eaten.
I’d love to tell you that desserts brought a reversal of fortune, but they actually might be responsible for another rant.
Once again a restaurant thinks it appropriate to serve food on utterly inappropriate surfaces, in this case shiny black granite. Mine was a chocolate fondant, a dollop of ice cream, a strawberry and a pile of chantilly served as if unrelated to each other in each corner of the slate and sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. The fondant was over-baked, so the oozy middle was non-existent and the ice cream melted so quickly on the un-cooled slate that it was impossible to eat without a straw.
The other dessert was identical except the fondant was a strawberry and champagne “tart” (which was actually a mousse) and the hundreds and thousands were swapped for those silver balls you get on wedding cakes that break your teeth. Fewer things on more suitable crockery would have been much preferred with both desserts. No-one wants to end a meal chasing badly-made, melting food round a chunk of building material.
If I were to find positives about my visit to Cognac, I have to say that the waitress who looked after us was an absolute delight and knew the menu and ingredients in great detail. Also, I suppose the price wasn’t too bad. Hard to know what’s a reasonable amount to pay for a decidedly average meal, but we spent just over £73, including a couple of drinks each. We didn’t leave hungry, at least.
Cognac isn’t great. I hesitate to say that it can never be great, but I would think that “not bad” is as high a bar as they would realistically be able to set themselves. And ‘not bad’ really isn’t good enough in the restaurant game at the moment.
Cognac, 37 Chanterlands Avenue, Hull. 01482 475600.