I have previously documented my love of the masala dosa, and identified the Rice Boat as possibly the only place in Cambridge where an authentic version is available. I was therefore very excited late last year when I heard that another Keralan restaurant was opening in the city.
A quick look at the Cocum website suggested that this place could be good, as it seemed to be an outpost of an established restaurant based in Greater London. The menu was extensive and contained lots of dishes with unfamiliar names in Malayali that I can't really pronounce. And although I was a bit suprised to see Tandoori dishes making an appearance (they are strongly associated with North India), I was reassured by the presence of masala dosas. I also noted that they offered a takeaway service and when one wintery night I really couldn't be bothered to leave the house (or indeed the sofa to cook something in the kitchen), myself and the male companion person thought we'd give Cocum a try. All our dishes were perfectly nice if a bit generic tasting and lacking distinct South Indian flavours. However, I will be the first to admit that a masala dosa doesn't really travel well so when a dinner with the girls was planned I suggested we trying eating in at Cocum.
First impressions on arriving were not impressive. I know 1970's retro is having something of a revival but the decor inside Cocum veered strongly towards the naff rather than cutting-edge cool.
However I would have happily looked past the large (and very dated) Indian tourist board-style posters of Kerala on the walls, the plastic flowers on the table, the old and heavy furniture and the worn carpet if the food had been amazing. It was not amazing.
My masala dosa was perfectly adequate, with the large dosa pancake thin and crispy. But the sambar lacked any real flavour, and certainly didn't have the expected spiciness to combine with the mild dosa filling. The coconut chutney was also acceptable, but again was very mild verging on bland. All in all there wasn't much evidence of many mustard seeds or curry leaves being used in the component parts of this dish, even though they are key flavours of this region.
The other dishes that were ordered also seemed to fall into this category of being completely acceptable but not really distinctively South Indian. This is in marked contrast to Rice Boat, which in addition to contempory decor also has a much shorter menu and dishes that deliver fully authentic flavours.
In later discussions it seems as if this branch of Cocum might actually be a franchise of the orginal London restaurant. And as there has pretty much been some sort of Indian/Bangladeshi outlet on this site for as long as I can remember, it may well be the case that the sign outside has changed but not much else. However this is purely my personal hypothesis, and it may be that Cocum is being run by Keralans who don't think that the residents of Cambridge are quite ready for the true tastes of the backwaters. But whatever the case, apart from a semi-decent masala dosa, my hopes for another venue for South Indian feasting were pretty much disappointed.
The bill for three of us was slightly under £40 (not including service), and this included two masala dosas, a prawn main dish, a couple of side dishes, and some drinks. So if low cost and slightly grubby and tired surroundings are your thing then Cocum might be the place for you, but I think I'll be sticking to the Rice Boat.
71 Castle Street
Cambridge CB3 0AH