For a touch of Parisian panache when dining out, Coco Retro brings a bygone world of French cuisine, period music and old-fashioned charm to Tunbridge Wells. Fred Latty pulls up a chair
Ever since brothers Maurizio and Ivan Di Santo opened their hugely successful Soprano Tapas & Wine Bar on
Tunbridge Wells High Street in 2006, their signature style of continental cuisine and show-stopping mixology has become a staple of the local foodie landscape.
Fast-forward 11 years to 2017, and the dynamic duo were at it again, this time making the leap from Spanish to French fare with Coco Retro. Just a stone’s throw from Soprano on Vale Road, the Parisian restaurant, bistro and bar has easily become one of the coolest eateries in town – and it isn’t difficult to see why.
From the moment my guest and I enter, we’re immediately struck by the fabulously fresh interior look: It’s stylish, relaxed and informal, complete with splashes of red reminiscent of its sister site, but expressing its very own visual identity that’s a feast for the eyes. Even the music is pitch-perfect, with smatterings of traditional Bal-musette and gypsy jazz straight out of Midnight in Paris.
We take our seats at the Deco-style cocktail bar, where our friendly bartender Federico introduces himself, before providing us with some nibbles to pick at, along with an extensive drinks menu to peruse. The listing itself looks like a work of art, boasting beautiful typography and design; you can tell right off the bat how much thought has gone into each and every detail here.
A big rum drinker, I go for the Santiago, a sweet, refreshing concoction of apple juice, rum, lime and orange Curacao
(£8.50). But I could easily have headed any other way – from the sloe gin-based Charlie Chaplin (£8.95), to the fresh lemon and Bombay gin of the French 75 (£8.95), I’d be right at home with any of these eye-catching infusions in hand.
As for my guest, she’s drawn to the gin, fresh lemon juice, sugar syrup and Chambord of the Bramble (£8.95), whose lighter citrusy notes are as invigorating as a summer stroll along the Seine. But it’s the expertise and precision with which Federico, clearly a master of his craft, creates these miraculous mixes that’s equally intoxicating to watch.
This whole place feels like Pablo Picasso or Chaim Soutine could very well be sitting at the next table. Th e hint at formative years is in the name, however it’s not the typical Gatsby-infused homage to Roaring-Twenties New York, but rather a far more authentic nod to ‘Années folles’, or the ‘crazy years’, of Paris in the same era. Yes, it captures something of the Jazz Age, but with far more subtlety and sophistication.
Soon enough, we’re led to our table, where we’re handed similarly stylised menus boasting a mouth-watering array of French delicacies. Tere are some bona fide classics on off er, of course, from confit de canard (£15.95), to steak et frites (£21.50) and moules marinière (£15.80), plus an assortment of entrées, including Burgundy snails (£7.25) and Calvados foie gras (£10.95).
However, it’s the oven-baked camembert that I’ve got my eye on, served with salad and toasted bread (£9.55), whereas my guest opts for the calamars frits (£6.95), accompanied by salad and spicy aioli. Both dishes are delicious, my camembert oozing with decadent flavour, the deep-fried squid lighter than air, while still packing a crunch that’s perfectly complemented by the aioli’s spicy kick.
For the mains, meat is brought to the fore. My choice of rouleaux de porc (£17.50), which comes with spicy shallots, mayonnaise and dauphinoise potatoes, is simply divine, the pork sweet and rich, without being too overpowering. My guest’s steak et frites, meanwhile, is expertly cooked, and although her taste is more well-done than my own, it goes down a treat just the same.
By the time we’ve polished off a bottle of the Riesling ‘Marcel Hugg’ 2015 from Alsace (£49.50), our dessert menus have arrived. I can’t resist the tarte au chocolate with strawberry ice cream (£6.95), and my guest’s vanilla cheesecake (£5.25) is utterly sumptuous. Washed down with a black coffee, it’s the ideal end to an unforgettable meal.
It’s that level of intricate attention that makes this place so special. In something of a transient local food scene, where restaurants, pubs, bars and cafés arrive nearly as oft en as they depart, it’s comforting to know that figures like Maurizio and Ivan are continuing to make their mark with a little more permanence; taking their time, not rushing things, and slowly but surely putting a culinary stamp on our town that’s sure to last.