Coentro sits cosily by Bashundhara in Dhaka with its evident aspirations towards a style of fine dining. A rainy pre-Eid day saw the restaurant at its calmest for a week-long celebration of their anniversary.
With a peaceful atmosphere among the dark hardwood tables and leather benches under soft low-lighting, your writer had ample opportunity to savour the ambience.
A mix of bare brickwork, concrete, and varnished wood under canopies of glass bottle lights set a rustic scene, punctuated by a charming playlist of both classic jazz and adult pop eclectically featuring the likes of Louis Armstrong and Foster the People.
Though not strictly Mediterranean in stylistic influence or décor, Coentro's familiar urban rustic-chic lent itself well to the atmosphere they needed to create, which certainly helps conversation flow easily among friends.
For the anniversary occasion, Tapas was the word in the kitchen, and what followed was veritably a small feast of eleven dishes (small?) laid out for the three of us of the Stripe team.
Tapas originates from Spain, reflecting a style of eating dating back to the Middle Ages. Tapas is eaten as a series of dishes – including coastal seafood from the Mediterranean – presented in small portions.
Coentro's menu boasts a genuine intersection of cuisines that are all at once Latin and Mediterranean, with authentic flavours complementing local tastes instead of making concessions to them.
The emphasis is on a wide variety of fresh flavours and ingredients in dishes taken at a leisurely pace among good company and in between fine drinks.
To add to that, your writer felt it appropriate to ready the palate for red ahead of Eid-ul-Azha.
Hoping for that preparatory experience, we let the chef decide for us what he confidently felt are the best dishes to serve. Beginning with a series of appetisers, we progressed to seafood and meat dishes.
An excellent appetiser of fried potato cubes mixed with pico de gallo – a salsa fresca of tomatoes, capsicum, and onions – and covered in a cheese sauce, eaten with toothpicks. Golden yellow, red, and green.
The potato cubes were warm and crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. Richness came with a light amount of cheese sauce in order not to overpower the other flavours.
The tomatoes were sweet and the onion added sharpness, while the capsicum lent bursts of freshness.
Remarkably, though we tucked into the warm potatoes and cold tomatoes after a little time, we found no sogginess after having let the dish stand. The Patatas Bravas was both soft, crunchy, and chewy.
Bolas de Pulpo
This was a personal favourite. Spicy and piquant, these octopus balls were soft with the right texture, and had a mildly pungent seafood taste bringing to mind both octopus and shrimp. The only complaint was that once cut into, the balls broke easily.
The spicy heat of the octopus balls were tempered by the three sauces on offer: garlic mayo aioli, cocktail sauce, and mint sauce. The aioli had the bite of garlic but not the overwhelming pungency that, once combined with seafood in general, would contribute poorly to one's breath.
The cocktail sauce offered heat and a little sweetness, and the mint sauce was herby and fragrant, if not sharp.
This Portuguese inspired dish is a sweet, spicy, and tangy tomato broth cooked with white fish, squid, shrimp, and clams served on a bed of rice. The rice was a surprise in a spoonful and gave an added body to the broth.
The abundance of flavours made the broth perfect for mopping up with slices of bread.
Slow cooking of the onions and tomatoes yielded a broth that is just the right consistency – neither thick nor watery. The seafood is again excellent and never overwhelming on the palate with the tomatoes. The mineral flavour of the clams enriched the saltiness of the broth.
Sopa de Mariscos
The Sopa de Mariscos is a twist on the old English chowder and sailor's biscuits, referenced in the likes of Melville's Moby Dick, and eaten widely by Americans in New England.
The twist? A chowder filled with white fish, squid rings, and shrimp that is creamy and nutty in colour, without sticking to the rules of having a completely white chowder. The usual crumbled crackers scattered on top is replaced by a bed of long thin strips of corn tortillas.
The coarseness of the thin strips helped the creamy chowder cling to the tortilla, and offered a welcome contrast in texture, giving the dish a bite. Much more exciting than pasta. Would even dare to say that the bread is not necessary for this one.
Another interesting take on the menu, the Pollo Relleno is a smoky grilled chicken that has been rolled and stuffed with spinach and feta cheese, served in cream sauce. The method of preparation is reminiscent of a Chicken Kiev without breading, and instead, served in a cream sauce.
The sauce played well with the spinach, but the salty tartness of the feta was absent. The chicken was soft and springy. The sear and cooking, however, dried out the surface of the chicken and made it tough. Gentler cooking on a lower heat would have kept the outside of the chicken moist.
Costillas de Ternera
Beef ribs with Papas Fritas thick-cut steak chips, all lightly glazed in sweet maple syrup. Beautiful to the sight, senses, and imagination.
Which disappointed me in how tough the actual meat was. It is understandable that given the constraints of time, slower cooking was not possible. But the fact remains that for ribs, time is needed to do its wonders in breaking down the tougher meat and giving beef ribs that fall-off-the-bone softness and tender quality.
To its credit, while the meat was tough and required the serrated knife to cut, the sweetness of the maple syrup (judiciously glazing and not drenching) was just right, and the flavour of the beef and steak chips were fantastic.
Coentro really seem to know how to make their potatoes, since the Papas Fritas kept their bite while still being soft and chewy.
Rib-eye à la Parilla
The rib-eye medallions were an inch-thick and cooked to a perfectly uniform and pink medium-rare. The meat was tender and juicy, served with a side of garlic mashed potatoes that complemented the juiciness of the meat.
On a minor note, the rib-eye could have used a little more pepper, but in all fairness, that is rather a matter of personal preference.
Chuletas de Cordero
Unlike mutton, lamb has a sweeter, more delicate flavour. The lamb was tender and a joy to eat slathered with the house mint sauce.
The herby flavour of mint is a classic choice with lamb, and is a staple flavour of the Mediterranean. This meat dish was flawless, and was accentuated by European touches – namely the side of vegetables.
The blanched carrots, beans, and cauliflower were firm and had a bite.
Seafood paella – the best was saved for last it seems. Though not the most traditional paella in terms of preparation method, the ingredients stayed authentic: Saffron, rice, peas, squid, white fish, clams, and shrimp.
Warming and fragrant, the rice was cooked perfectly with every grain having a bite without any mushiness or oiliness. The saffron's wonderfully coloured the rice, and once more, the seafood was salty, sweet, and excellent. A pleasantly green garnish of coriander topped the paella with freshness.
The balance of flavours and delicacy of the rice is a must for diners to experience when visiting Coentro. This writer unfortunately forgot to ask for a wedge of lime in his excitement.
Did we say last? These churros were last but definitely not the least. A piped dough that is fried, churros are a simple dessert that is served covered in sugar and eaten dipped in hot cocoa or chocolate sauce.
Not being partial to dessert, I found the salty-sweetness of the hot churros perfect. Only lightly crusted in sugar, and the bitter chocolate balanced the sugar well. A must for dessert, especially when on a dates.
Passion Fruit & Kiwi
A pleasantly fruity drink of puréed Kiwi and Passion Fruit over shaved ice. Not at all acidic, but sweet and very fruity.
A refreshing drink of apple with a pleasant bitterness from soda water. Its fruitiness paired well with all the seafood.
Photo source: Rittika Ali.