Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Plough

'The plough' or 'A long rant about Whitchurch' or 'half-arsed' you decide.

Whitchurch is well away on its march to become the new Pontcanna. The overpaid media wankers of that area have allowed some excellent restaurants such as Bullys, The new Conway and Fish at 85 to set up shop, and now Whitchurch has decided to replicate Pontcanna’s success. Only this time the effort is far more half arsed. That solid Whitchurch stalwart  Villagio is still doing what it does best; providing simple, cheap and excellent Italian to an appreciative and loyal customer base. The Thai upstairs is often great, the only shame being that it’s on the top floor and you can’t see in as too often we’ve visited to find ourselves the only people there, and that’s always unpleasant. The village kitchen was for a long time overpriced for a local restaurant, the cooking however being very good. They’ve seen to this with some generous offers and a decent sunday lunch which now make it a good choice for a meal out with friends. I’m pleased to see that Medittaranio is presently closed, but I can only hope for good. The old Saturday lunch offer was the only thing that made eating there worthwhile was scrapped a long time ago. Then along came the Fino lounge, greeted with great excitement by myself as I enjoyed their Bristol operations so much. But alas, like so much of Whitchurch it was again half-arsed. The menus are a delight to read but too often what arrives on your plate is a disgrace. The only real success of recent is to be found at Deli-a-go go. It’s to my shame that I don’t visit enough as the food and produce is excellent, and long may it thrive.

This all leads us to Whitchurch’s newest opening (or re-opening if you like) The Plough.  Modelled on the mega-successful re-launch of The Maltsters in Llandaff. I’ve visited the Maltsters a few times before the re-fit and found an empty miserable, moribund place. The re-fit worked perfectly for a place like Llandaff and offers good pub grub with a good pub atmosphere, a Cinderella story if you like.

Brains have rightly tried to copy its success with the Plough, but have made a very half-arsed effort of it. The Plough was a strange place in some ways. It was by far the most overpriced and expensive pub in Whitchurch. The chairs were uncomfortable, the music shit and the bogs were just that, bogs. It was however the most popular and beloved place in Whitchurch to an awful lot of people. Weekends you couldn’t move in there and the place took money hand over fist, so it would seem an odd choice for Brains to change. Granted the place needed a re-fit but a complete rebranding?  This however is a food blog and since Brains have opened a half-arsed gastro pub, then it’s about the half-arsed gastro bit that I will write, and todays Sunday lunch spurred me into action.

 We visited a few weeks ago and had a very pleasant beef Sunday  lunch, the only down side to it being the boiled spuds served in place of roasted (a very, very odd choice that only harks to a  kitchen not prepared to go the whole hog) The beef was tender and piled high, the veg plentiful. Today I went for the same thing and it came with the same boiled spuds. This time though the beef was inedible, un-cutable even. The friendly manager was apologetic and returned the dish to the kitchen, but what came back was exactly the same. I hate the obvious discomfort of complaining but it is entirely necessary to allow a place to address concerns at the time, if you intend to write the sort of shit that I do on my blog. However, one complaint should be enough, along with the fact that a plate full of beef went back to the kitchen unfinished.  

Another previous experience of eating there summed up everything I mean when I say that the new Plough is a poor half-arsed attempt at taking money from the well to do folk of Whitchurch. I ordered a starter of crab cakes, that would have been very good had it not been for a cloying, treacle like sweet chilli sauce that killed off any taste of crab, and the slate it was served on made me hate the dish before I even tasted it. We eat with our eyes first and foremost and this dish had me reaching for the fork, not to eat the dish, but to gouge the eyeballs out of my face. The main had the misses forcibly removing the fork from my hand for fear we’d soon own a guide dog. A perfectly good burger was proper pub grub, but the limp and floppy chips should never have been described as fries. The dish should have read “Burger with abomination” and just to piss me off further the food came perched on a piece of driftwood, making the whole thing an ’it’s a knockout’ style task for the poor waitress to carry.

The new Conway in Pontcanna was once a local boozer to the people of that area, and some people quite rightly felt pissed off when it was turned into a gastropub. They though got in return some exceptional cooking.  We Plough regulars haven’t been so well compensated. Serving food on slate and bits of wood doesn’t make the food innovative or exciting. It shows a place trying to draw the customer’s attention away from the fact they’re being served average food.

 The local British boozer is and always has been the absolute heart and soul of the British community, and Brains in their misguided effort to make more profit have torn part of the heart and soul from Whitchurch, and in return given us a half-arsed eatery. The bar out front was once a Bustling hot bed of banter, it’s now a banal, and boring bar for the elderly and once a month drinkers. The front of the pub where you could once see hundreds of people drinking in the sun and vying for a seat on the wall to watch the world go by has been filled with uncomfortable four seater tables  that make for insular conversation a world away from the gregarious place that once existed.

In summary, Brains have made a complete balls up of the once mighty Plough. When they threw out the old furniture they threw out the one thing that made the Plough special and that was the people that drank there. The only thing that for me personally would make up for that loss, is three Michelin starred food and not the average pub grub that the place now serves. It must be obvious to you by now that this is a very personal review as I’ve lost a treasured place in my life, but speaking objectively about the place as a restaurant I have to say that it just doesn’t come up to standard. The food doesn’t in any way deserve the prices that are charged, and were this not so personal a place I would never have written about it. My blog is intended entirely to inform the reader of places they must visit, or must avoid; the plough is neither of these. Eat here if you must but for the money I’d take the short walk to Villagio or pop into Deli-a-go go for a scotch egg.

Anyway, writing this has been for me a cathartic experience, but for anyone reading this who is looking for a place to eat in Whitchurch I offer this advice. If you want Italian then visit Villagio. If you want Indian then head straight to Kafe-la, but if you want pub grub then flag down a taxi and head to the new Conway.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Park House Club

Park House Club
20 Park place
Cf10 3DQ
02920 224343

The approach to this grand old building is a daunting one. Two giant closed wooden doors aren’t the most welcome of greetings to this former private members club. The lady who opened the doors and greeted us by name before we even knocked was however incredibly welcoming. A trait that was present amongst all the staff. Coats were taken and we were led through to the bar for some excellent value prosecco, and a great canapé of sesame coated duck rilette with a tiny quail’s egg perched on top. It didn’t make for elegant eating as the runny yolk squirted everywhere, but who cares, it tasted great.

Time passes slowly in this old manner house. Nothing is rushed, and our half seven booking became eight thirty before our starters arrived. This was after a stunning amuse of Jerusalem artichoke soup with crab. The misses and I had opted for the taster menu at £55. A far better deal than the A la carte option, as this place isn’t cheap.  Starters are all around the £10 mark and mains up in the £20’s. Quite keen pricing for Cardiff, so you’d expect the cooking to be top notch. Luckily for us it mostly was.  I’d asked to change my starter from a risotto to the snails, but the misses hadn’t so we got to taste an extra dish. The snails were plentiful and cooked long enough to be almost al dente, just like the conchiglie “shells” they were served with, a tasty little joke from the chef. The misses risotto was flawless, topped with slow cooked egg and mushrooms.
Next up was for us the only failure of the evening, the fish course. Miso marinated white fish (we were told it was cod, but I’m still unsure) was too much for the Ichthyophobic misses, but also for me, served with a flabby wet skin and a cloyingly thick larver sauce. A slice of beetroot did nothing to lighten the dish and both plates went back unfinished. I’ve eaten Grady Atkins food before at the now extinct Le Galloise, and the only dish that sticks in my memory from way back then was also a fish dish.  Again “white fish” was served but that time it was accompanied by a sake jelly. I ordered it because I’d never tasted a warm jelly before. It turned out that it wasn’t a warm jelly at all as it had half melted on the warm plate, and left the fish a soggy disappointing mess. Never mind, the chef more than made up for that disappointment with our next course.
Main of Richard Vaughan middle white pork is quite possibly the best dish you’ll find in Cardiff at the moment. Two cuts, one providing a thick layer of melting fat, the other a firmer slice from elsewhere in the pig, served with a glasslike shard of crackling, a dense slice of suet, and most interestingly a smear of melted cheese. The cheese shouldn’t be there, but is of just the right proportion to add a sharpness to the pork, without the annoying sweetness that an apple usually provides.
A cheese course came next which we enjoyed over a chat with the, (and I apologise for the hyperbole but it’s necessary here) exceptional, delightful, credit to the restaurant not to mention the whole catering industry, hostess. I think her name is carolyna? And she does the restaurant proud, with the time she devoted to ourselves and the rest of the customers. In fact, all the staff here deserve to be applauded, from the poor girl sentenced to sit by the front door and greet us, to the waiters and maitre d’. The exceptional service is perfectly suited to the beautiful, grand setting, and the two do each other justice.
Dessert of what was essentially a rhubarb and custard sweet in ice cream form, with what I assume was a sherry soaked honeycomb is just a hazy memory after we’d polished off a lovely bottle of well-priced red.( If you’re visiting it’s the Carignan Vielles Vignes, Alain Grignon, a steal at £21) but the perfect ending to an excellent meal. Grady Atkins is the closest us Cardiff folk have to a cleb’ chef. His welcome return to the city is to be applauded, and I wish him and the staff at the Park House every success. They’ve done well to open the doors to us proles, and in return they deserve our patronage. The A la carte menu, as I’ve said is prohibitively expensive to most of us, but the three course for £19 lunch is a bargain. I urge you to visit, and hope you enjoy it as much as we did. 

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Shaun Hill at Ffresh

If the British food world has national treasures, then Shaun Hill must surely be up there with Fergus Henderson and Heston. The ‘chefs chef’ has gone from Belfast, to London, Ludlow and Abergavenny picking up stars and plaudits along the way, and for one night only the Ffresh 2nd birthday party. I was invited along to the party with a host of other welsh bloggers, for a free meal in reward for my often rubbish writing.

The evening started with a lovely welsh sparkling wine and canapés of delicate, light cheese biscuits and heavy, heavenly, dense arancini, in the restaurants revamped bar.

In the main restaurant I was lucky enough to be seated with an unobstructed view of the open kitchen and a smiling jolly Shaun Hill overseeing the restaurants head chef Kurt Flemming, and his small brigade.

The team kicked of the meal with a starter of Red mullet with Rachael’s crème fraiche. The fish was lovely and moist in a punchy anchovy sauce. I don’t know who Rachael is but let me tell you her crème fraiche kicks arse.

Onto the main of Shaun Hills partridge pudding, fondant potato and hispi cabbage. The dish hit the nose with the punch from the rich dark gravy. I’ve tasted many umami rich dishes, but this was the first dish that in a strange way, I smelt that fifth taste emanate from the sauce. The partridge pudding consists of small pieces of partridge and chicken in an eggy dough. I asked Shaun after the meal for the recipe but was too pissed to remember. I do however remember it tasted divine. The partridge leg and breast that accompanied it where though slightly underwhelming as was the fondant potato. The bird was too dry, and the potato needed salt and lacked the luxury that gives it the title of fondant.

The desert however was luxury on a plate. Chocolate fondant did deserve the title but had sadly split open before it got to me, denying me the pleasure of breaking into it. A minor disappointment in an otherwise excellent desert. It came with a praline caramel and a vanilla ice cream, and made for a childlike adult dessert. A delicious way to end a fantastic evening.

I’ve praised Ffresh on this blog before and it’s still in my opinion the best place to eat in the bay (an opinion I held long before they gave me a free meal might I add). The staff are fantastic and the restaurant has embraced an ethos of locality and terroir in their sourcing of ingredients that should stand as an example to a lot of other Cardiff eateries. They are proud of their connection with True taste Wales and are right to be. Were it not for this connection I wouldn’t have learnt that Wales produces beautiful red wine at Ancre hill estates. A meal and an education are a wonderful partnership. Finally I need to praise them for the idea of the guest chef evenings. Cardiff’s dining scene is still pretty (actually, very) dire, and I do hope that some of these chefs see what a craving we have here for better restaurants and perhaps take the leap of opening one up.

This piece was written in part to gloat at those who weren’t there, but mainly for @dpmumbles , @niajon and all the staff at Ffresh for their wonderful hospitality. Thank you.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Hard times

My apologies dear reader for the lack of posts recently. These are hard times for everyone, and eating out has had to take a back seat to more mundane things, like paying the bills.  Luckily for me things are getting easier so I hope to be posting more reviews soon.
My longing for fine dining and great food has put me in a reflective mood, so i'd like to share some pictures from the finest meal it's ever been my privilege to eat.
If you're ever in Dublin I strongly suggest you try and eat at Thorntons restaurant. It's a one star restaurant offering two star food with three star service. I can't speak highly enough of the place.

                                                  Amuse bouche - Beetroot cured Halibut

                                                          Starter - Scallop three ways
                                              Main - Loin of rabbit, Valhrona chocolate sauce

                        Dessert - Warm Chocolate Fondant with Bergamot Marshmallow and Milk Sorbet (the smiley face on the marshmallow is 100yr old balsamic)

Thursday, 26 May 2011




228 City Road

CF24 3JH
029 2048 6688

Stop what you're doing right now. Put down that pancake roll, and unhand that dim sum. I've got big news, Earth shattering news. Are you ready ?...........Cardiff has a new Chinese. While you take a moment to let what I’ve just told you sink in, let me explain it has the title of .cn and it can be found on City Rd. What's that you say? "So fucking what?”
OK I’ll admit it's hard to find your way around some parts of the city through the MSG smog, but .cn is different. Not just because they've gone for something other than the usual 'Golden pandas anus' for a restaurant name, but it also sets itself apart as somewhere a little bit leftfield with the dishes it serves.
This is authentic northern Chinese cuisine. How do I know this? Well firstly it says so on the front of the building, but secondly, a quick glance at the menu shows that they go the whole hog when it comes to meat eating. Nasty bits included. Now I know sod all about authentic Chinese cuisine other than they're not as squeamish when it comes to food as us westerners, so any "facts" provided in this review, most likely come from Google or Wikipedia, even if I do try and make out that I know what I'm talking about.
When I entered the place it immediately felt Chinese from the music, to the staff, to the clientele, and when I sat down with the menu I was immediately transported back to my holiday in Beijing. I felt like showing off my impressively extensive knowledge of the Chinese language with words like hello, thank you, this and that, but realised I didn't even know what dialect those four words came from, and would've just looked a tit anyway. Instead I decided to order from the menu like a rich western tourist in a country like china, where literally skipfulls of food can be bought for less than the cost of a Greggs sausage roll. Somewhere in the back of my brain I knew I wasn't really in Beijing and that I was ordering far more food than my wallet usually allows for a lunch in Cardiff, but my belly took over. I'm sure I made for a pretty scary sight as I eagerly pointed out various dishes to the waiter. My smiling face contorted like Jack Nicholson's in The shining.
The menu here is as extensive as you'll find at any Chinese restaurant, but presented differently. You wont see egg foo young in twenty variations, to be followed by chow mein in the same twenty variations, and so on through fried rice and sweet and sour. Here every dish is an individual in its own right. The menu is offal heavy to say the least, and makes delightful reading to offal lovers like myself.
Pork lungs in chilli sauce and shredded beef tripe, sit in the same section on the menu as steamed chicken and shredded potato with fried chilli, so the less adventurous of you can still order happily. I though, was here to try something new and a plateful of duck tongues were the first dish to land on my table. Followed almost immediately by the pig tripe in chilli sauce and a steaming bowl of trotters. These were to be joined a little later by a plate of fantastic salt and chilli squid. The waiter asked if I wanted a bowl of rice, I didn't, but was so in awe at the feast in front of me that I just nodded yes, and began tucking in.
There was no cutlery on the table, just chopsticks. I could have shown of my prowess with them, deftly picking up my food with immaculate precision, or perhaps pick a fly out the air Mr Miyagi style, but again I’d have just looked a tit. I've come to despise those people who persist in looking foolish holding chopsticks when the far greater invention of the knife and fork go unused. On more than one occasion in the Far East, I’ve been forced to crap into a hole in the floor. That custom thankfully hasn't been embraced in far eastern restaurants in Britain for precisely the same reason that we have a far better invention of the flushing toilet, but the chopstick thing persists with Brits keen to show how well travelled they are. Anyway, on my visit neither cutlery nor chopsticks were called for, as what I had ordered was the very definition of finger food.
The duck tongues require you to slide the soft meat away from the small shovel shaped bone they sit on, and this is best done with fingers and teeth. Sucking each small morsel of meat off the bone and discarding the remnants. Soft tender chunks of meat with a hot chilli kick, eaten more like a snack than a proper dish. The tripe was served cold with the same chilli sauce and spicing as the tongues and had a slight resistance to the bite, though nowhere near as rubbery as my attempts at cooking stomach. Had I not known what it was I was eating, I would've assumed it to be cold, thinly sliced pork belly. The star of the show though were the trotters.
You might find this hard to believe, but when I was in Beijing I did quite a lot of eating, and ate very well at that. Breakfasts of silky scrambled eggs piled high with shaved black truffle, all day champagne buffets, Daniel Bouluds signature foie gras stuffed burger all featured amongst many other heavenly delights. One day however, We stumbled upon a Szechwan place where we ordered the only dish that we would have to go back for that same trip. The only dish I can still taste when I think about it. A plate of trotters coated in a thick red sauce heavy with that lip numbing Szechwan heat. We devoured the gelatinous, sticky meat with fury. We went through so many tissues wiping the sauce from our hands and face that the restaurant offered us plastic gloves with which to handle the beasts. We left the table a scene of blood red splatters and piled high with bones, as if Tarrantino had guest directed a Crimewatch reconstruction.
The trotters at .cn are more in tune with a western palate, coming coated in a brown gravy rather than that super-hot Szechwan red stuff, but are equally as melting and moreish. I mentioned this to the ever so pleasant and polite waiter, and was told to just ask for that red sauce the next time I visited and he'd get the kitchen to cook my trotters in that instead. I wanted to hug him for telling me that.
The finale to my lunch was the salt and chilli squid, and it couldn't fail to please. A mixture of sliced squid and whole baby squid, battered and deep fried. Heavy on the salt but done to such a perfect level that it never reached the point where you find it too much to bear. A strangely pleasurable salty experience that showed the kitchen knew what they were doing, and that you're in safe hands when it comes to their cooking. The baby squid could be eaten in one large mouthful and made for a very satisfying animalistic experience. It reminded me of Old boy, and I loved every bit of it.
With only half the food finished I sat back bloated, asked for a doggy bag and ordered the bill. The meal should have cost me a fortune, but with each dish averaging the £6 or £7 mark the total  came in at only £30. A closer look at the menu shows that only six dishes cost more than a tenner, and with such an extensive menu, that has so many dishes perfect for sharing I have to say that the restaurant is an absolute bargain.
It's a very rare event when I go for a meal and fail to find fault, and this will be the first review on my blog that features no complaints. I need to state for the record that I’ve only visited once and try to make a point of visiting a place at least twice before I write about it, as all restaurants have good days and bad. What sets .cn apart from other places in the city and affords it a one-visit review, is that it serves something Cardiff needs and that's diversity. I've spoken in the past about Cardiffs need for more high end / fine dining places, but equally important to the city are more specialist places that offer something different. I'm yet to eat at Tribe Tribe, but the overwhelmingly positive reviews show that the people of Cardiff are open to new regional cuisines, and .cn offers exactly that. It's newly opened and so needs all the help it can get, and in writing this blog post I hope to get at least a few more customers through their doors. I'm not being completely altruistic here because that's not my style. I want the place to succeed because I liked my lunch so much that I’d now hate to lose the place. I mean, where else in Cardiff can I get my offal fix?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Crown Social

Crown Social


The Park Hotel
Park Place
CF10 3UD
02920 785593

Meal for two + wine and tip = £80

 There can have been few more anticipated openings on the Cardiff dining scene this year than The Crown Social. OK admittedly the Krispy Kreme opening probably trumped it, but those doughnuts are the devils work, so for me at least The Crown Social was looked forward to with a fervour I’ve not felt since my Christmases in the 80's as a spoilt little shit.

As I’m sure you already know, The Crown Social is the latest addition to the portfolio of James Sommerin, the one star chef at The Crown at Whitebrook and has as it's executive chef, that legend of British cooking Martin Blunos. It seemed that all the planets had finally aligned to give Cardiff its first chance at a star. I've eaten there twice now and this is a review of two halves but I’m afraid I’m not yet fully convinced.
Considering I had waited with such baited breath for the opening, I still thought it wise to give the place a couple of weeks to allow it to settle into it's stride, but when I could wait no longer I booked up for the very reasonably priced taster menu at £45.95 for 8 courses. The night didn't go particularly well and I was left disheartened by the whole experience.
 Firstly the service was slow. Incredibly slow. Four of us were eating and we'd almost finished our first bottle of wine before the first course arrived. I missed the dish being served as I’d popped to the toilet, but returned to find what we all assumed was the amuse. I say we assumed because the small espresso cup of soup had been put in front of us with no explanation whatsoever as to what it was we were eating. Now when you order this taster menu, it doesn't come with a written description of what you will be eating and it's down to the staff to explain each dish as it's served. It's a nice custom that makes the customer a) feel the restaurant actually gives a fuck about the food it's serving b) allows the customer to ask any questions they may have about the dish, and c) shows a basic level of courtesy to the people who will eventually rack up a bill of over £300 between them. I tried desperately to catch one of the staffs attention but they were all far to busy doing something else other than attending to the four or five tables of customers that were occupied on the night. I did eventually manage to find out what the soup was. It was artichoke and quite pleasant, and not an amuse but the first course. We continued in this vein for most of the meal. Me asking what each dish was before the waiter beat a hasty retreat.

I did worry that perhaps my personal hygiene problems were what were causing the bother. The people I was dining with all have the highest standard of personal hygiene, but me, being a fat lazy slob, am prone to a bit of a smell after a long days work, but no, I'd been looking forward to this meal and had taken an extra long shower that evening in the restaurants honour, and anyway, they didn't seem so stand-offish when it came to the wine. Our glasses were topped up by what I assume were the restaurants ninjas, so swift were they to appear and disappear, and someone was always on hand to offer us the wine list when the previous bottle was empty. This happened quite often since the time between courses (what I like to call drinking time) wasn't measured in minutes or hours, but tree rings or better still, rock strata.

None of this would have mattered if the food had been out of this world, but where we expected fireworks we got damp squibs. A rabbit terrine was so-so, as good as you'll find in most places but not much better. The main of pork belly was down right boring, lacking even crackling (I mean ffs come on!) but had in its place a caramelised, sorry burnt apple slice. A cheese board did nothing for us and as I recall wasn't even finished, before desserts that were the second highlight of an otherwise regrettable evening (the first highlight being the Swiss pasta, but I’ll come back to that later). First we were served a donut with a shotglass of vanilla ice cream. The donut was a proper donut and none of that krispy kreme crap. Small but beautifully formed, filled with a thick rich jam. The second desert was again lovely. A slice of rich chocolate cake looked great topped with some impressive sugar work, and an ice-cream quenelle, but the texture of the sharp sugar was none too pleasant. They say food can evoke strong memories, and this spun sugar took me right back to a summer spent installing fibreglass in people attics, and the tortuous, incessant itching as the shards dug into every pore of my skin. I wore a mask during my time as a loft insulator but I now know how my mouth would have felt if I hadn't.
We left that evening steaming drunk and very disappointed, but this is a review of two halves and I’m glad to say that when the misses and me returned there for lunch things were a lot better.

Royal wedding day, and in order to avoid the spectacle at all costs I booked us in for lunch. It was once again very quiet, just one other couple and a very entertaining drunk who wandered in later, but we were shown straight to our table and menus were presented promptly.
A word on the menu for those yet to visit. It's presented in quite a confusing manner with the words " Rather than offering individual starters and main courses, the Crown Social has designed the menu for sharing. Our staff are here to guide you. Eat as much or as little as you desire" Well if you ignore the bullshit spiel and treat the menu as you would any other a la carte menu then you shouldn't go far wrong.
We ordered some "Nibbles" to eat whilst we made up our mind. Crispy pulled lambs breast was pointless. A wispy ball of finely shredded skin, like being served a bowl of hair freshly wrenched from a women who uses too much lemongrass scented hairspray and left us both unimpressed. The sticky beef rib middles on the other hand were excellent. Cooked to melting, they came with an acidic coleslaw that was so good it almost out-shone the meat.

For starters I went for the chicken oysters, and the misses opted for the Swiss pasta, bacon and morel dish that we had so enjoyed on the last visit. I couldn't blame her for not trying something new, for this Swiss pasta (spatzle?) dish is by far the best thing I’ve tasted anywhere in Cardiff. It's tremendous. The small misshapen thick and doughy pieces of beauty are doused in a light but very flavoursome sauce. The salty smoky bacon adds another level even before you get to the earthy taste of the king of mushrooms. It's heaven. I want it now as I write. I will always want it. That's not to say I was disappointed with my starter of chicken oysters, not at all, in fact I was very glad I had ordered them. They showed me what chicken is supposed to taste like. Real chicken, well sourced and cooked with no other intention than to show you what you've been missing by eating inferior raised, inferior cooked poultry. The thyme sauce it comes with adds little, as the flavour of the meat is just so strong.
For mains she went for the quail with a satay sauce that I unashamedly stole from her plate as she fought in vain to stop me, and I for the lamb. Once again we saw why Blunos is so highly regarded when it comes to cooking. The flavours of the ingredients are almost overwhelming, meat and veg that tastes familiar but with the volume cranked up to eleven, it's incredible. There's a lot of talk from chefs about ingredients speaking for themselves and The Crown Social shows you what they mean. Simply presented dishes with every emphasis on how they taste.
Deserts were no different. I went again for the donuts, only this time it was a much larger portion. Three in fact, a chocolate, caramel, and jam, and instead of the shot glass, a proper grown up glass of proper grown up milkshake. Not too thin, yet not too thick and tasting intensely of vanilla. The waitress recommended the honeycomb soufflé and the misses took her up. We were both glad she did, as it was the nicest soufflé either of us have ever eaten.

The Crown Social is the first restaurant in Cardiff with the pedigree to do justice to those of us Cardiffians who appreciate good food, and also to the city as a capital.
My first experience there left me a bit shell-shocked. I had expected so much from the place. The taster menu was disappointing even though the food was perfectly fine, if not incredible, and a selection of the main menu just decreased in size isn't the most exciting thing in the world. However, when you agree to it you enter into an unwritten contract to see it out, no matter if it doesn't meet your expectations. That though is no reason for the restaurant to bump up the cost with slow shoddy service on the food but attentive service on the wine. I may not be the most experienced diner, but I can recognise up selling when I see it, and at The Crown Social it was blatant.
Worst of all, it made me doubt my own opinions of a place. How could I write about somewhere with such strong credentials as being bad? Who am I to argue with chefs of Somerins and Blunos credentials?
Thankfully the second visit did away with any doubts I had. It was far more in tune with the restaurant I’d hoped for. Cooking that impresses with its showcase of ingredients, educating people in the way food is supposed to taste, with attentive and charming service. It did have it's issues, not least that this time I was sober enough to take in the awful design and decor of the place, but I’m more than happy, in fact very keen, to return to sample more of Martin Blunos incredible skill with ingredients.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Deli a gogo

Deli a gogo
3 Penlline Rd
CF14 2AA

"We’re all middle class now,” said some prick way back in the 90's. I don't agree with the comment or most of anything else he said, but when it comes to food he might just have a point.
I was raised by working class parents and spend twelve hours a day working with my hands and carrying around heavy objects that slowly inch the discs out of my spine, so have always considered myself to be working class. The thing is, as I sit here reading my torn and battered copy of The ragged trousered philanthropists, whilst sipping on a montepulciano and nibbling a Roquefort the colour of Orwells Wigan miners, I begin to have my doubts.
I know people who would still consider fine dining a poncy and elitist practice, and others who think that only chavs and scutters eat at McDonalds and K.F.C. so perhaps to some people, what we eat may very well still reflect our social status, but If we all really are middle class now then surely nowhere reflects this better than the deli. They sit astride the social divide like the taxi tours that show the poverty of the favelas to rich American tourists. Peasant or ghetto foods like Pastrami or Kabanos sausages are sold at prices that dent the kiddies trust fund and Deli a gogo in Whitchurch is no different.
The village has been crying out for a decent deli for years, and I think in Deli a gogo we might just have found it. The produce on sale here is excellent, but of course comes at a premium. I don't mind this as I believe that if you want good ingredients then you have to be prepared to pay for them. If you don't agree that's fine, there's an Iceland down the road.
The place hasn't been open long and the range of products reflects this, something I’m told is being added to all the time, but if the constant stream of customers that I’ve witnessed is anything to go by then they've hit the ground running. The standard deli fare is on sale here, such as your pastas and pasta sauces, flavoured mustards and a range of herbs and spices. They also however stock cans of risotto as attractive as anything Warhol ever painted, and wild boar pate that I would buy were it not for the fact that I’d eat it all with my hands before I even got it home.
The meat and cheese counters are again run of the mill, but I’ve spoken to the owners who have told me of the stocks of meat they have maturing ready to go on sale, and their trips abroad sourcing new products. I dearly hope this is true as in my opinion a deli should be somewhere you can go to get more exotic ingredients. It should be a place that intrigues customers and tempts them to try new things. I've paid many visits to wallys deli, that Cardiff old timer, and been disappointed by the blank looks I’ve received when asking for Nduja, Guanciale, Andouillette and Lardo along with many other things that I’ve fruitlessly searched the shelves for, and I hope that Deli a gogo can be the sort of place that stocks these hard to find ingredients, making it a destination for any committed Cardiff foodie.
You might be thinking from what I’ve written so far that deli-a-gogo is the same as your average deli, and not worth going out of your way to visit, but I’d like to explain that's not the case. It is worth paying a visit not just for ingredients but also for the place as a whole. You can get a coffee here that ranks whole leagues above most of what you'll find in Cardiff and it comes with a biscotti. A little crisp cloud of beauty the likes of which you're unlikely to taste outside of Italy. It's served by the friendliest of staff who seem as keen and enthusiastic to see the business thrive as the owners and customers alike. They also do soups and hot meals, and have a liquor licence, so you can enjoy a sample of one of the many interesting bottles of wine they sell while enjoying your lunch. I myself tend to visit for their sandwiches and baguettes that cost around the two or three pound mark depending on whether you sit-in or take away, amongst which I’ve tried the Parma ham and mozzarella (heavenly), and a chorizo and cambozola baguette that I immediately raved about to anyone who would listen. The one sticking point that I just can't bring myself to applaud is the salt beef sandwich that will cost you a hefty £7. It's a good salt beef sandwich but that's all it is. Accompanied by a lonely gherkin and nothing else...for £7. You might be thinking that I typed that wrong when I said it cost seven quid, but I never, it's the truth. Although actually perhaps I did. Perhaps what I meant to write was "SEVEN FUCKING QUID! For a fucking sandwich ?!?! At least that's what i thought when I came to pay for it. I have a kilo of brisket sat in my fridge brining away as I write this and it only cost me a fiver. Were I to shove the entire kilo between two slices of bread and sell it I’d still be making a healthy profit. It's advertised as the Deli a gogo signature, and this is a huge mistake on their part. Not just because of the price, but because on their opening night I tasted a Scotch egg better than any I’ve ever eaten in my life. Far, far better. When Cardiff has it's annual food festival the only place that stands out amongst the generic stalls is the Scotch egg company. It always sells out early because the people of Cardiff enjoy a good Scotch egg. The one I tried at Deli a gogo is the best Scotch egg you will eat. A bold statement I know, but I’ve never tried one better. The thing is they don't even sell them. The one I tried was made by the chef in The Promised Land bar in town, and if Deli a gogo need something to be signature then it's this egg. Priced reasonably it would be something people would talk about and that I would spend the majority of my monthly wages on.
So far the owners seem to have done everything right. From the design of their frontage, which places it among the few interesting looking shopfronts in the village, to their keenness to embrace the community and their customers. I just hope they don't rest on their laurels but continue to become not just an asset to Whitchurch but to Cardiff as a whole. I want the people of Cardiff to not have to worry about searching the internet and paying delivery fees for hard to find ingredients, but to know they can head straight to Deli a gogo.
The prices are indeed high on certain things, but even in this recession it seems that something the people of Whitchurch still have, is disposable income. You only need sit in the Fino lounge on a Sunday afternoon to see the young mothers, who should be struggling to make ends meet more than any other, sipping latte's and white wine whilst their brats scream loud enough to put you off your Scrabble. What is needed is for these sorts of people to by-pass the Co-op or Iceland and head further up the road and make use of our newest independent.
In summary, I’m glad we now have a deli in whitchurch, and a good one at that. I look forward to seeing it thrive.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011




201 Cowbridge Rd E
Cardiff, South Glamorgan 

CF11 9AJ
029 2066 8833

meal for three + wine and tip = £100

Ichiban, apparently, translates roughly as "first" or "best”. I'm not sure if Cardiff’s Ichiban can lay claim to being it's first Japanese restaurant, although it is Cardiff’s most well known. I'm also uncertain as to whether or not it's Cardiff’s best as the only thing I have to compare it too is Tenkaichi on City Rd. I was asked on twitter recently for my opinion on which I thought served better sushi, and had to confess to not really having a clue. I'd visited Ichiban a good few years ago, but have absolutely no recollection of that visit, and Tenkaichi was a new one on me. I'd noticed it in passing before, but it never crossed my mind to visit.
There's a reason for my reluctance to frequent these places, in that I have a huge respect for Japanese cuisine and didn't want to be disappointed by what I always assumed would be Cardiff’s sloppy attempt at one of the worlds great food heritages. (I said I had a reason, I didn't say it was a particularly good one). I've always saved my sushi indulgences for places elsewhere, fearing I’d be served fish of dubious quality. This was me at my most patronising and to be quite frank, stupid. For all my pretended knowledge of Japanese food I’d made that common mistake of associating all Japanese cuisine with seafood and especially sushi.

It's a common held belief that the Japanese love of fish arrived in the 8th Century with Buddhism and the proclamation that the consumption of meat should be outlawed in line with Buddhist principles. I choose no to believe this story as it seems that whenever religion gets it's grubby fingers into the kitchen all it brings to the meal is prohibition, and that stands in stark contrast to the pluralistic appetites of the modern foodie. I follow a different train of thought that says the Japanese, ever the pragmatists, decided to save their animals to work the land, and avoid the need to hand over vast swathes of their precious, liveable island to pasture.
Whatever the reason, the Japanese continued to eat meat and although you'll struggle to find horse or chicken sashimi in the U.K. (sadly) you can enjoy yakitori, ramen, Kobe beef, shabu shabu and various other meaty delights.

Anyway, back to the reason I was spurred into action, and came to visit Ichiban; that twitter question.
I'd popped into Tenkaichi to sample their wares one lunchtime, and although I wasn't blown away, I was impressed with the value. I spent £10 at lunch and left pretty stuffed after trying a tasty eel nigiri, and some badly prepared maki that unravelled on the plate without my even touching it. I'd ordered a tempura squid which on first bite tasted bland but rewarded subsequent tastings with a very understated and subtle, light seasoning. You had to concentrate to appreciate it, but it really was, very good.
I ordered the same dish on my visit to Ichiban a few days later, and although that particular dish was on a par with Tenkaichi, everything else about my visit was far better.

Three of us visited the Cowbridge rd Ichiban on a Saturday night. They have two branches, one here and one in Roath. This one is a shabby old place and could do with a bit of a spit and polish, but then again so could most of Cowbridge rd so I won't hold it against them.
We ordered beers and a plate of mixed nigiri to eat whilst we considered the substantial menu. Besides the octopus nigiri, which was too chewy to eat in anything near a civilised manner, everything else on the plate tasted excellent. The salmon was for me the star and tasted out of this world. It was something I ordered a few more times that night only to wake up the following morning craving more. In the end, We decided the best way to tackle such a big and appealing menu was to order a few large dishes and a range of smaller tasters to share.
Amongst the smaller dishes was a sashimi salad. A good value alternative to a normal plate of sashimi, which can be prohibitively expensive, and it's freshness put an end to any doubts I might have previously had about the quality of Cardiff’s fish. Tempura vegetables featured aubergine, sweet potato and enoki mushrooms amongst other things and the veg held its bite well. Age gyoza or chicken dumplings divided the tables opinions. The misses adored them, but to me they were a bit unexciting, the pastry bland, dry and a bit tough.
The larger main dishes were spot on. A plate of curry yaki udon, was above average for a noodle dish, but what really set it off was a covering of dried bonito flakes that danced and melted in the heat from the noodles. They provided a depth of savouriness that no Chinese noodles I’ve ever had possessed. My one complaint with the bonito flakes is that there weren't more, as once they had gone the dish slightly lost its punch.
My friend had ordered a bowl of ebi katsu nabe which Consisted of four large prawns, breaded and deep-fried and swimming in broth, with clouds of egg swirling about them. I tasted half of one of the prawns and it was good. The breaded exterior had stood up well to the liquid and retained a good bite. I can't really comment further since my fat, greedy and if I do say so myself, selfish companion thought the dish far too good to share and refused me any more.
The misses ordered tori karaage, or deep-fried chicken with a brown sauce. We wondered what the brown sauce would be. I said (with no authority whatsoever) that it must be a katsu curry. I was wrong. It was brown sauce, H.P. brown sauce, and in my opinion the moreish deep fried chicken deserved something a bit more special.
For dessert, the misses went for the tempura ice cream, and our companion the deep fried mango. The tempura ice cream is an interesting alternative to your run of the mill deserts. Tempura balls are served sliced open to reveal a Thayers ice cream, and come sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. It's by no means as unpleasant as you might think, but after a few bites feels far heavier than desert should so makes a great sharing dish. I wasn't in the mood for dessert but still fixated on that salmon nigiri, ordered another two portions for myself.

Both Ichiban and Tenkaichi have the customary pieces of fabric in the doorway to get in your way and irritate you as you nip out for a smoke. In Japan in the old days, customers would have wiped their hands in these as they left and the shops would never wash them; a dirty cloth denoting good business and therefore good food. It's a shame that's not how they do it these days, for it would save customers the hassle of finding the best place to eat and perhaps wasting money as they do it, but this is the 21st century and twitter is how it's done these days. It's with my eternal gratitude that I thank @AmandaJJenner for posing that sushi question on twitter, as it got me out of my self imposed, Japanese denying rut, and led me back to Ichiban. It made me realise that the chances of finding my dream Japanese restaurant, where a ninety-year-old sushi chef serves omakasi in a place that seats only four people a night, isn't ever going to exist in South Wales. I can though be happy with food of the quality that Ichiban serves, but more importantly with the price of both Ichiban and Tenkaichi.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Mulberry St


48 High St
Llandaff, Cardiff, South Glamorgan

029 2056 4646

Meal for two + wine and tip = £58

In the time since I last ate here about a year ago and now, the restaurant has changed hands. New owners we're told, same staff. Great news as the last time we were there we learned that the chef had just come runner-up on masterchef professionals and the food on that visit was great. I don't know for sure if the kitchen staff are the same, but I’ve little reason to doubt it as the cooking is still of an excellent standard. It's a small restaurant but the space is utilised well, with larger parties sat at the rear and a smaller more intimate area up front near the window. The front of house staff are lovely, but perhaps could use some extra help. When we ate the place was only nearly full, but we still had a 50-min wait for our food, and dishes were bought to ours and other tables without previous dishes being cleared first. We ordered bread whilst we browsed the menu and were served three types; a white, a wholemeal and something fantastic. I'm afraid I can't tell you what the fantastic one was, as when we asked the waiter his face lit up. We were told that they buy all their bread in, except for that one. He said it's a soda bread (it wasn't) that the kitchen had been perfecting and ran off to get us some more. We hadn't the heart to tell him that it wasn't the bread we'd liked so much, but tucked in gratefully. The misses is Irish so knows her soda bread well, and she thought the one made by the kitchen was great. High praise indeed.

The theme at Mulberry St. is based around small dishes. It's a concept introduced to great acclaim in London by Andrew Turner and subsequently copied by the likes of Michael Caines at Abode and Jason Atherton when he was at Maze. I'm not sure how well it works at those places but here in Cardiff I’m afraid it doesn't. Giving fat greedy customers like myself the chance to cherry pick what they eat might well leave them full, but also feeling somehow cheated. Going from calamari, to black pudding and bacon, to haloumi just doesn't feel right. The meal lacks structure and form, which doesn't do justice to the great skill of the kitchen staff. The ingredients are all of very high quality and handled with a deft touch. My one complaint of the cookery would be the need to lay off the salt a bit. The callamari was over-seasoned to wince inducing levels, but was tender without even a hint of rubberyness. The beetroot fritters when dipped into a maple mayonnaise are pure comfort food. It's a dish I’m determined to replicate at home so I can eat it every Sunday night in front of the telly for the rest of my life and die a happy man. Venison had sat around a little too long and had lost a lot of heat. It looked a bit grey and unappetising but was infact the tastiest and tenderest venison I’ve ever eaten.
The small dish concept isn't called tapas as the portions should be bigger, or complete dishes in miniature form, but here they're neither. Three prawns does not a meal make. Neither do a few pieces of black pudding and diced bacon, no matter how delicious they are. How do they get away with such measly portions you ask? The answer is salad, fucking tons of it. The kitchen must need a commis- chef just to open all the bags of asda pre-packed mixed leaves they get through here.
An a la carte menu is offered but with only a few choices it's the little dishes people turn to. I think the new owners need to change this. I can fully understand why the restaurant went for the little dishes concept. At the time of opening the owners were unusually for Cardiff, on trend, and doing something a bit different allowed them to stand out from the competition. The thing is, this isn't London or New York, it's Cardiff, and to stand out from the crowd here you simply have to cook good food. The chef at Mulberry St. knows how to do this and does it very, very well, and a traditional a la carte format would really allow his cooking to shine. An added bonus would be, they’ll save a fortune in fucking salad!



Mermaid Quay
Cardiff, South Glamorgan 

CF10 5BZ
029 2049 1900

Meal for two + wine and tip = £80

Mimosa takes its name not from the cocktail, or the genus of herb, but from the tea clipper that first ferried welsh settlers to Patagonia. It's a quasi-cryptic nod to the owner’s proud Welsh heritage. Us welsh are quite fond of our little colony across the water that still speaks the language.
The restaurant is a proud participant in the river cottage "chicken out" campaign and we are told that all the chicken served is free range, as is the pork, and rightly so. The lamb on the menu is Gower saltmarsh and the steaks come from welsh black beef. This same courtesy sadly isn't extended to the seafood. Cod, sea bass, mackerel, john dory and mussels all featured on my last visit though with scant reference to where, and no reference to the methods, by which they were caught. Provenance has for a long time been important to diners and restaurants alike, but with the success of Noma has become de-rigueur. This half-arsed approach to ingredients does nothing to convince diners that the restaurant really cares about its produce.

The restaurant interior is minimalist, and the crisp white walls, gunmetal grey finishes and darkwood tables are yet to look dated and give the place a cool feel. We ate early on a Saturday evening and were glad to see that every other table was full. This was great as the way sound travels around the space is quite exceptional. Each table can be as loud as they like without being overheard or obtrusive to other diners. The noise gives the place a certain vibe and makes for a very relaxing and casual evening.
The misses ordered gnocchi to start and they were perfectly dense, with an understated cheese and mushroom sauce. It was a well-made dish, as cheese sauces can often overwhelm. It was however pretty big for a starter and had us regretting that we'd ordered sides to go with our mains. My starter wasn't as daunting, in fact it was a little on the small side. I'd ordered cockle fritters, which I’ve had here before, and I’m sure they were bigger then. The laverbread sauce they were drowned in was cloying and not really as pleasant as I remembered, but perhaps my memory is at fault as much as the kitchen was.
I'd ordered steak for a main, which is something I rarely do when eating out, as the cooking can be so hit and miss. I don't know what made me order it on this occasion as the only choices were sirloin or fillet, boring or more boring. I went for the sirloin, which was ok. I apologise for describing it as ok, but I’m afraid that's all it was. Steak, chips and a béarnaise sauce, It was pub grub. The misses had ordered the blue poppy seed covered chicken, and it looked very impressive, but again and I’m very sorry, was just ok. The parsnips it came with were delightful and sweet, and the poppy seeds really lent an interest, but the dish never really shone. Our sides of olives and bread weren't of the greatest quality, and the onion rings, weren't overly greasy but nor were they as crispy as we would have liked. The portions here are quite generous, and were eaten with plenty of wine, so we skipped desert and asked for the bill.
I'd like now to come back to the point I made earlier on the half-arsed menu. I wanted to call the whole restaurant half-arsed but that would be unfair and unjustified. What they don't do though, as with the menu, is go that extra mile. I described the place once to a friend who said "oh yeah, I know the place. It sells pub food." I was a bit taken aback by this as I thought the food served at Mimosa was far better than to be labelled simply as "pub food" but on reflection I think he was right. You won't eat here and be blown away by the cooking, but I doubt you'll have any serious complaints and will probably leave quite drunk and happy. I'm afraid though that until Mimosa ups it's game, it will never become somewhere worth going out of your way for, but remain a good alternative to the chain shitholes that plague the bay. I'm a proud Welshman but what I’ve never been able to take pride in is the dire state of Cardiffs dining scene. I feel like this as Cardiff eateries don't tend to appreciate that there are plenty of people in the city who understand and love food, and long for more daring, imaginative cooking when they eat out. Mimosa is a prime example of this unadveturous outlook. The cooking here, though rarely flawed, is never exciting.