Back in Cowley this week, and this time we pay a visit to Kazbar’s sister establishment, the intriguing Café Coco. It’s been a feature of the Cowley Road (and, until recently, Park End) for longer than most of us have been alive, and with a menu as daring yet wide-ranging as this, it’s no wonder that Café Coco has remained unmoved by the lapping waves of change. Constant gastronomic innovation – for better or for worse – keeps it fresh and ensures that there is always something to pique your curiosity and whet your appetite, with their experimental approach ensuring that what’s tasty sticks around and what’s not gets filtered out.
We kick off with a platter of cured meats which, whilst undeniably tasty, is notable more for its absurd abundance, as we find ourselves nearly stuffed by the end of it. The usual suspects (salami, prosciutto, olives and the like) are garnished with pickled caper berries – a rare treat, plump and juicy and vinegary and fruity. They prove the perfect foil to the meat, as does the tapenade – the black of olives flecked with colourful sweet pepper and bolstered with meaty aubergine – which we eagerly scoop up with crisp, oily, sesame-smattered flatbread.
Café Coco really comes into its own as a melting pot of different cultures – or rather, perhaps, a clumsy, mismatched jumble, depending on your tastes – in the main course, which combines elements of Greek, Italian, Spanish, Moroccan and English (amongst other) cuisines in what is best described as a sort of pan-Mediterranean greasy spoon. It was in the interest of embracing this diversity that we ordered the newest item on the menu: the full English pizza. A stonebaked pizza base with a smear of reddest tomato was crowned with, true to its name, a full English breakfast, complete with multiple rashers of bacon, a sizeable sausage, some spectacularly moist and flavourful black pudding, garlicky potatoes, and a fried egg proudly assuming centre stage. Strangely enough, no cheese, as if the inventor thought that whilst a full English on a pizza was just fine, putting the customary cheese on top would be a step too far. According to the irrefutable gastronomical logic of Joey Tribbiani (‘Pizza? Good. Full English? Good. Full English pizza? Goooood.’), this Frankensteinian monstrosity is a success, not to mention extremely filling. The other mains – one fresh-tasting king prawn salad and one spaghetti with luganica sausage sauce – were both exemplary, if not as exciting as the first; the salad, peppery with rocket, tangy with ginger, and spicy with fresh chilli, had a healthy scattering of tender king prawns to satisfy even an appetite that would usually transcend the reaches of a plate of greenery, whilst the herby, cream-laced luganica sauce was thick with piggy chunks, its spaghetti base pleasingly al dente.
The café in its nocturnal guise doubles as a cocktail bar, albeit to a questionable degree of success. This is not to say that the bar isn’t popular: on the contrary, floods of yummy mummies and lads-on-the-town alike regularly occupy every table, thirstily slurping down Coco’s colourful offerings. It is these, however, that are a little hit-and-miss, most notably their signature Coco Cooler, which boasts a creamy concoction of amaretto and strawberry. I couldn’t help but feel a little nauseous at the cloyingly saccharine flavour which ill-advisedly straddled the realms of milkshake and cocktail, and in the end opted for a freshly squeezed juice of apple and pineapple and mint and whatever else they decided to throw in – clearly the safe option, but rewarding nonetheless. Another foray into the cocktail menu was recommended by the charming waitress, who encouraged us to sample some sort of rhubarb cocktail made with the extremely niche rhubarb vodka along with a splash of fizz and some other fruity nonsense. Thoroughly intrigued by the champagne flute of bubbly redness, we took a sip of the six-pound drink, only to find the unpleasantly familiar flavour of…WKD red. Whether this is some hilarious post-ironic joke, reconstructing an alcopop out of the most absurd and expensive ingredients around, or whether they genuinely think it a novel and appetising cocktail, I do not know. But either way, I’ll be steering clear of the bar next time.
Dessert, on the other hand, was more welcome, doing justice to the preceding courses much better than their liquid accompaniments; we just about managed to fit in a sizeable wedge of homemade banoffee pie, its fluffy cream covering a dense caramel, alongside all the other dishes we’d just demolished. Also applaudable was the chocolate-drizzled waffle, crispy and warm, which was soon drowned in flowing cream. It’s nice to see artery-clogging indulgences alongside healthy salads in a place like this, as the menu’s range ensures that Coco is a happy medium for groups of picky eaters who usually spend half the night arguing about where to go.
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To call Café Coco a jack of all trades would be unfair; yes, perhaps the food lacks the unity which customarily speaks of authenticity and expertise in a restaurant, but they manage to cover classics and novelties alike with enough success that you should be willing to overlook the place’s disjointed nature and just enjoy it. If nothing else, the room’s energetic buzz will lift your spirits – even if the spirits don’t.