I’d feared the worst.
After all, surely a national chain couldn’t invest the attention to detail required to make it’s eat-at-home box a success. There’d be too many logistical challenges, an absence of the personal touch, too many things that could go wrong.
Yet, curiously, the Côte At Home box was the second best of lockdown, pipped only by a practically perfect offering from Shropshire restaurant Docket 33.
We’ve eaten three Michelin-starred boxes and one from a Masterchef champion; it was more flavoursome and better value than them all. Exceptional food, precise seasoning, simple instructions and magnificent flavours made it a genuine stand-out.
Happily, in addition to eating stunning dishes, I also got to eat my predictions, which couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Côte box was the best of French bistro cuisine. It was an absolute belter, delivering high quality produce from its kitchen, cellar, fromagerie, boulangerie and boucherie, right to the door. Chilled bistro meals, side dishes and desserts, were ready to bake – all at the same temperature, 180c – it couldn’t have been easier or more enjoyable.
Cook-at-home is here to stay. That’s not just our opinion. The Times have described it as a high quality addition to the growing dine-at-home sector. The Guardian’s Jay Rayner says it gives Tom Kerridge a run for his money.
Some time ago, Côte introduced a central kitchen for some of their dishes and the food is produced there. It is absurdly cheap; risotto for two is just £9.95, beef bourguignon for two is £13.95 while a lamb shepherd’s pie for two is just £10.95. Grab it while you can. The dishes are all oven-ready; cleverly, they’ve been designed to cook at the same temperature so there’s no haggling over who gets to reheat their dinner first.
The quality outstrips anything available in our supermarkets. I hadn’t anticipated quality to match such outlets as Waitrose, M&S or the numerous high-quality independent businesses that stock both those outlets alongside delis and farm shops. Wrong again. Côte at Home is restaurant-standard food served at supermarket prices.
Menus and packaging count in the new oven-ready market. On that front, too, Côte was a step-ahead of the competition. With detailed listings, including advice on allergens, it was easy to handle, arrived dead on time with a one-hour slot provided by the courier. The process was simply, the service efficient.
Then there’s the question of food that travels well. The worst cook-at-home dinner since lockdown began came from a chef who thought it would be a good idea to send out bitter, scorched lettuce leaves with a salad. You can imagine how well that travelled. It’s still squishing around somewhere in the bottom of the bin. Similarly, some of the upmarket restaurants that have sent out intricate and fiddly shards of beetroot crisp or similar elements have come unstuck.
Côte, in contrast, offers food that travels well, is neatly packaged, is easy to assemble and tastes as good as it looks.
We decided on a smorgasbord of dishes, imagining (again, incorrectly) that they’d be modestly proportioned.
So we both started with a confit duck leg, which was magnificent. Beautifully cooked; the sinew had broken down entirely and coated each tiny muscle with an unctuous, umami-rich glaze and the fat had melted entirely, basting the meat deliciously. It was utterly fantastic, the same standard that you’d buy in a Lyonnaise bistro.
Breaded chicken with fennel was thrilling. The chicken escalope had been coated in broadcrumbs so came to the table with a crunchy exterior and moist interior. A pat of garlic butter was placed on top while stilling piping hot, delivering liquid, golden indulgence to every mouthful. It was served with a tomato and cornichon relish that was wonderfully piquant and strongly flavoured while a side of braised fennel with a squirt of lemon juice was majestic.
A risotto vert was served with peas, broad beans, green beans, courgette, baby spinach, pesto and mint. The grains of rice remained slightly al dente while the flavours were summer on a plate. Fragrant, with plenty of bite and stunning to look at it, it was a simple dish, executed with excellence.
A lamb cottage pie was magnificent – so good I’ve already been online to order several more for the freezer. Featuring lamb mince and chunks of decadent shoulder that had broken down under a long, slow cook, it was deeply satisfying and wonderfully rich. A rich sauce featuring beautifully cut vegetables, broken down tomatoes and stock was deeply moreish while the potato puree topping and breadcrumbs cooked to a deep golden hue added delicious crunch. Shepherd’s pie is a true lottery dish when buying in and most – including from the more expensive retailers – are sloppy, poorly flavoured and good only for the dog’s bowl. This, however, was gold star food; a luxury dish that was rewarding, comforting and beyond all expectation.
Finally, a beef bourguignon dish featuring bacon lardons, chestnut mushrooms and a fabulously intense, sticky sauce was off-the-scale pleasing. Served generously, it was a £14-per-head main that cost just under that sum for two. I stood at the table and applauded the virtual chef. Compliments to him or her, whoever they might be.
There were two desserts, a creamy lemon and Armagnac posset that was a snip at £3.50 and a crumble aux pommes with a cinnamon-flavoured topping and neatly-cut apples, alongside a puddle of cream. The apples – rather like the lamb shepherd’s pie – revealed a skilful cook. Rather than the mushy stew so often provided, these had retained their texture and shape and were served as tiny cubes. Wonderful.
Côte at Home ought to make it to our supermarket shelves; though prices will then have to rise as retailers take a percentage. The food is truly exceptional, the best of the best, and it’s one of the few lockdown operators who can truly say it provides a restaurant-standard-experience from the comfort of your home.
Beyond the standard menu, there’s also a cheese shop, a meat shop, a boulangerie and a wide range of wine and drinks, from champagnes and wines to beers and ciders. So whether you’re cooking alone, or for two, or inviting a large number of guests for a dinner party, it covers all bases, offering spectacular value, sensational quality and a touch of style.