Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Pizzeria Villaggio


73 Merthyr Road
    CF14 1DD
    02920 613110

This will be my first review of an Italian restaurant on my blog, but before I get to it I feel I must vent my spleen in despondent, frustrated anguish.
Something about the Italian restaurant scene in Cardiff has troubled me for quite some time now. It's rarely the cooking that causes my despondency, but my exasperation comes with the identikit menu and complete lack of innovation.
The average British foodie has been lucky enough in the last decade to experience a renaissance in dining, and although Cardiff is always behind the curve, surely it's possible that change could come through the Italian restaurant scene first.

When I was growing up the only restaurant I can remember standing out was the Greek place on Crwys rd, and it stood out to me precisely because it wasn't Italian. For some strange reason Italian eateries, along with Chinese and Indian have always thrived in Cardiff, with every area enjoying their fare share. Even against the might of the ubiquitous pizza and pasta chain abominations, like Bella Italia, Pizza Hut and ASK the humble family owned places have trooped along. This surprises me as they all serve pretty much the same thing. The only difference being that the small independents can't offer the same sort of deals as the chains, so surely they should be a dying breed in the face of such competition, but that's just never been the case.

I'm yet to walk into an Italian restaurant in Cardiff without being able to guess at most of the menu without even reading it. Carbonara will be there of course, and will usually be presented doused in cream. Bolognaise will be there, and it has to come with spaghetti. Amatriciana, lasagne, Arrabbiata, and for vegetarians the spinach or mushroom ravioli will all, i'm sure, also feature.
I know people enjoy the run of the mill Italian dishes very much, and it's those dishes that have allowed so many places to thrive, but why the hell can't someone offer something a little bit different? I know that this is often where the specials board comes into play, but it really shouldn't have to, as once again the usual predictability will come into play. A fish dish will feature usually a sea bass or cod (the "frutti de mar" will most likely be on the main menu, consisting of squid rings, shrimp and crab sticks.) The steak will be there, a choice of rump or sirloin, and they'll also dip a toe meekly into the world of offal with some sort of liver dish.
I may be coming across as a carmudgeonly arsehole here, and that's because I am carmudgeonly, but also because I believe that people should be given the chance to experience a far wider range of foods. Cardiff is now awash with global cuisine, and restaurants offering something dare I say it exotic are thriving, where as Italians are still pushing the same tired, old, comfort food, and there's something very seventies about their attitude to what cardiffians want.
To say that Italians have a rich heritage when it comes to food would be to understate tremendously, and sadly us welsh are missing out on a huge part of that heritage. We all cook pasta dishes at home, and some of us might even have quite a repertoire, but I’m yet to meet anyone who says their gonna knock up an osso bucco for the family on a Monday night, or rustle up spitini a la siciliana when they get home after work, and it's that sort of thing that restaurants should be offering us. I'm not asking for high end, fine dining, or molecular gastronomy here, but I am asking for the option of trying something a bit different when I go out to eat.

I haven't always harboured these feelings. There was a time when a visit to an Italian for a Carbonara was something I looked forward to, even craved, and I can pin-point the exact moment when my attitudes changed.
I'd seen on-line that Jamie Oliver was opening a new branch of his Italian chain, and I knew right there and then, that soon enough the only thing Cardiff foodies would be talking about was Jamie’s fucking Italian. I was soon to be proved right and in my usual miserable way, I got more and more pissed off. Why the fuck were people queuing up for an Italian with a celebrity name above the door, when a short walk away were Italians that had been dishing out good food for years? I knew I would have to try Jamie’s place, I didn't want to, but I needed to walk the walk if I was gonna talk the talk. After eating Jamies food I felt, and still do feel, that I was correct to be slagging him off. I won’t go into details as I feel the place deserves a second visit before I review it, suffice to say I was un-impressed.
So I kept on slagging him off and bemoaning the fact that established eateries were suffering because of him, until someone far wiser than me pointed out that this was a good thing. For the Cardiff dining scene to evolve it takes competition, as competition should hopefully breed innovation. It was somewhat of an Italian epiphany. Eateries in Cardiff had coasted along, picking up their shares of the customers and doing nothing out of the ordinary because there had never been a real, serious, challenge to the food they were serving.

Now I needed to get all that off my chest because I love Italian food. I love to cook it, I love to read about it, and I love to be served it. Now since this blog reviews Cardiff restaurants, and I’m yet to find anywhere out of the ordinary when it comes to Italians, then it's the ordinary I must review.

Pizzeria villaggio is just around the corner from my house and it's been there for almost as long as I’ve been alive. The family that run it are always welcoming, hospitable and genuinely pleased to see you It warms my cold, cynical, foodie heart to see the grandmama behind the stove of the open kitchen as I’m led to my seat. This open kitchen walk pass is one of my most hotly anticipated moments when dining out, and no-where else in Cardiff does it like villaggio does. The steam that hits you with the smells of garlic and chilli are truly pavlovian, but sadly lead to an anti climax when you see the decor of the dining room. It's bland and lacks any individuality. The place could definitely do with a more homely touch.
The menu is of course run of the mill, but it's what they do with their ingredients that keep me going back. They cook their pasta better than I ever could, and with main dishes at around the £8 mark, and good cheap wine, the total bill is never crippling.

Whatever you order when you visit, please heed my advice and order their garlic bread. The usual soggy baguette is done away with, and replaced with something more akin to a pizza base. It's heavenly. It's also sadly the best starter available. On my last visit I started with the mushrooms which were far too acidic and bitter and not at all pleasant. But I’ve also had the cockles (gritty), the Parma ham and melon (exactly what it says it is) and prawn cocktail (the one you're mum makes on Xmas day will be better and she won't charge you a fiver for it). So save yourself a few quid and head straight for the mains.

The misses and I spent the one evening trying to work out what the spaghetti they serve here is. It's fatter than anything you'll find in the shops and could well be Bigoli, or possibly it's a setting on the die they use to make it in house. It's to my shame that I’ve never found out, but whatever it is, it's fantastic. The sauces cling to it, like my awful attempts at pasta dough cling to every work surface. The mare e monte you can see pictured was advertised as coming with fettucine, but this fat spaghetti was a fine substitute. The dish was seasoned perfectly and the sauce coats the tongue as pleasingly as it coats the pasta. A stunning bit of hearty grub.
The misses usually goes for the penne al ragu and asks for extra chilli. She was recommended this by a friend and has never looked back, so I’ll recommend it here to you too. However, on our last visit she opted for the meatballs, which were underwhelming. Too small for my liking as had they been bigger they would be less prone to drying out as these had.
For the purposes of this blog I thought I’d stray from the pastas that villaggio does so well, and sample one of the specials which they don't. I chose a skate wing with vegetables and it was miserable. The fish itself went from far too crisp to far to soggy in the space of three inches. The frozen veg had never had the pleasure of meeting salt, and I’m not sure how they managed to make a bowl of roast potatoes taste like play-doh but they did.
As for the pizzas served here I can only pass on to you what I’ve been told as sadly too much cheese makes me ill. I'm reliably told by someone who eats little else than pizza that the ones served at villaggio are among the very best, so please give one a go.

In summary, pizzeria village does exactly what it sets out to do. No frills cookery at a price that should get you out of the house on evenings when you can't be arsed to cook yourself. If you stick to the main menu and the dishes they've been cooking week in, week out for years then you shouldn't be disappointed. In fact I’d say you'll eat better-cooked pasta here than you will in most Cardiff Italians. If you live outside Whitchurch then you probably have your own local favourite doing exactly the same dishes so there's really no need to make a trip to villaggio. However, if you do live in Whitchurch then please, please make more use of this local institution and avoid Mediterraneo in the village. The newcomer isn't a patch on the old timer.

This whole blog post might seem a bit confused, but that's just how my brain is. I needed to write the whole rant as I’ve now come to the conclusion that the local Italian has its place in the community. We may not have places that will achieve Michelin stars but the fact that we can eat the sort of food, and drink the sort of wine that send you stumbling home in a pleasingly soporific stupor  is something to be cherished. Best of all, it really doesn't cost the earth.
I still don't really know for sure where I stand when it comes to big name chains, and probably never will. Maybe one day Massimo Bottura will open an outpost of Osteria Francescana on mill lane, but until then please make use of the tired old local Italians as well as their celebrity named competition.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Mint and mustard

Mint and mustard
134 Whitchurch Road, Cardiff, South Glamorgan CF14 3LZ029 2062 0333

I've been a fan of this place since it first opened and I saw the enticing pictures on their website.  I became an even greater fan a year or so later when I eventually got to eat there. They had just been announced on restaurant magazines 100 best of Britain list, and we decided that this accolade definitely warranted our visiting, so eight of us went along on a Friday night. From the second I popped that Bombay chat from the pearl starter into my mouth and saw the smiles on the others who were doing the same I was hooked. The light pastry case, giving way to smooth yoghurt. Even better, they did fish, and they did it well.
Mint & mustard is a Keralan restaurant and apparently Kerala is all about the seafood. The meat dishes here are great, but on that first visit it was the fish that had me hooked. A bowl of monkfish with boatman sauce overwhelmed me on that visit, the tamarind bringing on a rush of acid indegestion, but when I sampled the same fish with a mango allepey sauce, I was blown away. On another visit I tried the chefs signature dish of tiffin sea bass. Now I must confess to not being a fan of sea bass. To me it's the fillet steak of the ocean world, bland and lacking in any character but that's just me. It's served here on a lightly spiced mashed potato, with that mango sauce I love so much and topped with a beautiful streak of raspberry. An alternative is the polichathu, where the fish comes wrapped in a banana leaf; the moist flesh infused with flavour and in my opinion a far better dish. 
Everyone with me on that first evening loved it, and all have been back since, but for me it meant more. For me this was a life changing experience. I don’t use that term lightly in a "I’ve just seen the doctor and he said my cancers cured" sort of way, no this was bigger. I'd finally found an Indian restaurant I enjoyed.

   I've always struggled with Indian food in general and I won't pretend to know anything about it. For me a night out at an Indian has meant struggling through a ladle full of slop, dumped on a pile of rice, and this has been the case at every place I’ve visited. I've always felt slightly autistic when dining at Indians, as I just can't understand peoples overwhelming emotion for it. Everyone else seems happy as they discuss excitedly which form their slop should take, and how hot said slop should be, and most importantly, which naan they want to make them feel more bloated and uncomfortable at the end of the meal. I just sit there more miserable than normal, dreaming of Mint and mustard.

Mint and mustards food is refined even sophisticated, and if Cardiff needs something desperately, it's sophistication. They've kept some touches of the classic Indian, like the bad art and shit music, but done away with the chips and giant mounds of rice. I've actually been warned on a couple of occasions by people who hadn't done their research that mint & mustard is rubbish because they don't do half and half and the portions are small, and you cant get a jalfrezi, and that they didn't enjoy it at all. This cheers me immensely. The poppadoms are still there, but at mint and mustard they're more like crisps. Small perfectly cooked and satisfyingly crunchy, they're more a revelation than a pre-meal nibble.
The other thing about Kerala I’m told, as with a lot of the sub continent, is that they understand vegetarian cookery. This is definitely the case at mint and mustard. I'm no vegetarian myself but the dishes I’ve tried here have been lovely. I've even moved from the meat filled pearl starter, to it's veggie equivalent the panch ratan (If you don't want to stretch to the £9 panch ratan then let me recommend the spinach and prune cake instead, it's the star of the panch ratan.). I live in hope that one day the best of the two will meld and form the ultimate world conquering, Indian super starter of my dreams. 

Another problem I have with Indian restaurants is the seemingly endless list of dishes that fill the menus, and Mint and mustard is no exception. Along with explanations that would give Tolstoy writers cramp, it can all become a little bewildering, as once you've reached the end you forget what you read at the start. I think therefore that it might be useful to provide some recommendations. I already mentioned the monkfish, and the robust, meaty flesh stands up excellently to the heavy and creamy Indian sauces. It does however lose it's finesse when poured over a pile of rice, but is a great alternative to the lamb and chicken curries most people will be familiar with. A starter of Nandu; a soft shelled crab, is delicious but also one of the most visually pleasing of the dishes served here.
Another dish I can heartily recommend is also my misses’ favourite. The Malabar biriyani is a masterclass in rice cookery. Meat, rice and spices are cooked together in a pastry-covered dish, giving the added bonus of theatrics as the waiter cuts away the lid releasing the scented steam. Before tasting it myself, I was unaware just how well rice could take on flavour. The meat, thanks to the enclosed cooking method, is moist and flavoursome, but the humble cereal grain is the real star.

My writing so far may feel less like a review and more of an advertisement and for this I apologise. The reason for this is that I really do enjoy mint and mustard and feel it's a real asset to the city. I have my complaints of course, There would be something seriously wrong with me if I never. A duck dish I once had was disappointing. I had expected the kitchen would do something wonderful with a duck breast, perhaps serving it elegantly sliced, and intelligently spiced atop a bed of wondrous and exotic veg. Sadly it came in chunks doused in a thick stew-like sauce. The flavour of the meat lost to the extent that had they run out of duck that day, and substituted it for lamb, or beef, or labrador I’d have been none the wiser. This is mentioned more in the hope that Mint and mustard themselves take note, and continues to offer something as far removed from the run of the mill curry house as possible.
I've also heard tales of rude and arrogant staff, but have been lucky enough to have the same waiter on every occasion, who is always smiling, polite and knowledgeable. That was until my most recent visit when the man serving us did an excellent job of getting on my tits. Not only did he seem intent on rushing us, returning at 30-second intervals to ask if we were ready to order, but also seemed to be working on commission.  After every order, we were asked if we wanted anything else. "No thanks" came the reply, "how about a naan?", "no thanks", "are you sure?", "yes thanks", "have you seen the new list of naan and side dishes?" ,"yes thanks", " so you don't fancy anything?" "No, thanks, and please just FUCK OFF!". 
The hard sell is never appreciated, un-called for, and for a restaurant of this calibre, completely unacceptable.

So, in summary to this somewhat essay-like review (again I apologise) I'd say; If you haven't already tried it, I recommend you do. Though please, for your own sake, keep an open mind, and enjoy.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


11 Kings Rd
Cardiff, South Glamorgan CF11 9BZ
029 2019 0265


meal for two + tip = £80

This review is from my second visit to Patagonia, and it's with somewhat of a heavy heart that I have to write it. My first visit was quite a while ago now, when a group of friends and I visited with little knowledge of the restaurant and few expectations. That meal had that ever so rare pleasure you get when you accidentally stumble across a gem. Starters, mains and dessert for all of our party were beautifully presented, petite and pretty, tender and tasty. We were served some of the best-cooked meat i've ever eaten on that occasion. I loved the place and despite my best efforts it's taken me over a year to return.
In a strange way I wish I hadn't revisited, as it's caused me somewhat to question my memory of a meal, and like Descartes before me, it led me to question everything I know about the relationship between knowledge and the senses. If my first meal had so overwhelmed me that I sang it's praises to everyone I met, then how come on my second visit, could I find that I got it so wrong? I was overcome with crisis, torn apart by self-doubt and plagued with suicidal thoughts towards my blog. Thankfully, after spilling my heart out to the misses in a flood of tears, she told me to stop being such a tosser, and that the restaurant was probably just having a bad night.
She should know as she was with me on both occasions, has a far better palate, and isn't as prone to melodrama as I am.

We went along on a Saturday night and were pleased to see the place was busy. We were lucky enough to be seated next to the window, so we could laugh at the people struggling through the rain outside, but unfortunately the table for two they gave us would barely accommodate one. This was silly, as Patagonia doesn't seem to lack the floor space to make the tables that little bit bigger. Granted the restaurant isn't the biggest place, but a slight re-jig would work wonders.
For starters I ordered a smoked eel and pork agnalotto (I wanted the tuna belly confit, but someone more fortunate must have already eaten it all). It looked fantastic surrounded with an applesauce, but the bowl it was served in forced my wrists into some awkward positions as I tried to attack it from some obtuse angles. The first few bites were heaven, but it did start to taste a bit like baby food and I was quite relieved when I finished it.
The misses had ordered the beetroot risotto and I’m sure the kitchen was short on salt that night as it was the first of our under seasoned dishes. It again looked lovely but it's beauty belied it's bland, flavourless eating.
For mains we both decided on the duck, but since I’m writing the blog and she wouldn't budge I was forced to opt for the venison. I didn't mind so much as my head was still awash with thoughts of the meat we'd eaten on our last visit, but once again I felt let down. The meat was cooked to the degree I like, but was fibrous, slightly tough and again lacking salt. The mashed potato that it came with thankfully wasn't under seasoned and had been beaten into a rich, smooth puree .I could happily have eaten my own substantial body weight of it.
Onto her duck. A large breast was again plated beautifully, although lacking an accompaniment of deep-fried confit leg ravioli, which the kitchen had promised. They realised they're mistake just as we realised it was missing, so all credit to them, but strangely the ravioli was more reminiscent of Cornwall than Italy. The deep-frying had given it the strange quality of a Ginsters pasty and was a bit disappointing. The duck breast was well cooked but again no-where near the heady heights we remembered, and would have benefited from a thicker sauce. The pan juices it was served with were just too weak for a meat that goes so well with the sort of sauce that sticks to the top of your mouth.
After a nice bottle of wine we were ready to leave, so avoided dessert as nothing on offer sounded particularly appealing and ordered the bill.
I left with a heavy heart, but not because our meal was bad. If this second visit had been our first, then I would still be singing the praises of Patagonia, because the cooking is great, and the service excellent. The under seasoned food let it down more than anything, and although it caused me a crises of conscience, I’m still keen to return.

Saturday, 6 November 2010


The misses is from Ireland and on one of our trips back her family took us out to dinner at a place called johnnie fox's. It's one of Irelands oldest pubs, tucked away in the mountains over looking Dublin. It's like every Irish theme pubs wet dream and if you ever get the chance to visit you really should. I’m sure you'll love it. Anyway, on my visit there I ordered the jambalaya and loved it, so when we got back to Cardiff we decided to recreate it, or at least develop our own version. This was about three years ago now, and the recipe has evolved into what I want to share with you today.
This is a Monday night dish for us, using up the leftover meat from the Sunday roast. I think any leftover meat you have will work well, but pork is king so that's what we've settled on. This is a boisterous dish with the addition of king prawns and smoked sausage to ensure that every mouthful is a meaty one. Here is what you'll need:

Smoked sausage (I recommend the garlic and herb chorizo from bath pig.)
Left over meat
10-15 King prawns
1 ½ tbsp. Cajun seasoning
1 Green Bell pepper
1 Leek
1 Red chilli
1 large clove of garlic
1 Bunch of spring onions
1 Tin of chopped tomatoes
450ml chicken stock
250g rice

1.Toss the left over meat in the Cajun seasoning
2. Fry the sausage to release its oil
3. Add the seasoned meat to the sausage and fry for a bit
4. Add all the veg (except spring onion) to the pan and to soften and brown slightly, adding the garlic and chilli last
5. Add the rice and stir to coat in the oil and juices in the pan
6. Add tomatoes and stock and bring to the boil
7. Reduce to a simmer, sit back and relax for 30/35 mins until the rice is cooked to your liking
8. Fry prawns in a separate pan and add when the rice is cooked
9. Mix through finely chopped spring onions
10. Place in a bowl, grab a fork, sit back and enjoy.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Teaching you to suck eggs

Everyone knows how to make scrambled eggs, it's really not rocket science, but most peoples idea of scrambled eggs is two minutes in a very hot pan, beating vigorously to achieve dense, solid, cloud like formations of egg. What they don't realise is that taking the opposite approach of a lengthy warming over a low heat achieves a creamy beautiful ambrosia, more suited to be served as a starter than a quick breakfast. This takes time I’m afraid but the ends most definitely justify the means.
If the long slow process is how you already do your scrambled eggs then this article isn't for you, but then I’m sure you'll understand why people need to be told.
You'll need a good non stick pan for this. I use a small saucepan to cook two eggs previously beaten in a bowl with salt, pepper and a bit of paprika and feel free to add any herbs of your choosing.
Now, melt a knob of butter in the pan until it bubbles, and over the lowest burner on your hob, add the beaten eggs. The trick is to continuously scrape the bottom of the pan, pulling the just warm egg back to be replaced with more liquid egg. It's important to remove the pan from the flame every now and again if you feel that the eggs are cooking too quickly, this is down to your instinct as a cook, but what you most definitely don't want to see are your eggs clumping into lumps. Remember your trying to produce a smooth lump free end result.
After about five minutes you should notice the consistency has changed slightly, the liquid being slightly more viscous and custard like. If it's still lump free then your doing great and on the right track.
Keep pulling that egg back from the bottom of the pan until you achieve something akin to rice pudding consistency. This takes me about ten to fifteen minutes. Now it’s up to you how much further you want to take it. I like my end result to have a bit of a wobble to it, so when shaken it settles like a good risotto.
Eaten with some chorizo or black pudding these eggs are heaven on a plate, and I guarantee you'll be impressed with just how creamy and also how superior they are to the two-minute high heat method. Please don't be put off by my shitty presentation in the last pic, but have a go yourself. I promise you you'll love them.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Conway

The Conway
58 Conway Road
CF11 9NW
02920 224373

I've long read in envy, the newspaper reviews of what's become known as the gastropub. Places like The Harwood Arms and The Eagle have had me salivating at the possibility of combining my two great loves; the pub and good, hearty, well cooked food. Unfortunately, whilst Londoners have had the privilege of these sort of places for quite some time, we in Cardiff haven't been so lucky. Even the Americans have had them for longer, With April Bloomfield exporting the idea to New York, and to great acclaim, at The Spotted Pig and The Breslin. I managed to eat at The Breslin not long after it opened in the hope that I might finally experience the thrill of the gastropub, but although the food was fantastic, the pub part just wasn’t. So, I returned back to the U.K. with a heavy heart and to more of the same tantalising reviews, which i longingly poured over. All this, I’m glad to say, has changed slightly with the arrival of The Conway.
It's taken me quite some time to get down there to eat, but I’ve kept an eye on the place and heard talk of well cooked pub grub. This led me to hope that in The Conway I’d find my gastropub, or at least something approaching it.
 The pub feels quite nice inside, but it does suffer from the same design that plagues many pubs these days. The muted colour schemes and large leather couches. The rough worn wooden tables and miss matched chairs. The bookcases of magazines and games. It's all designed to give a relaxed, personal, natural feeling to the place, to make the customer feel like they’re at home amongst friends. The problem for me is that the opposite is true of this sort of place. You're never going to get to know the other locals at a pub like this, and the barstaff are never going to know your name and have a pint waiting on the bar for you without you asking. This is a minor complaint for me as it's not my local, and so I could also be wrong, but anyway, it's the food I’m mainly interested in.

The misses and myself popped down there to meet some friends on a Saturday afternoon and I can't tell you how happy I was when I saw the chalkboard menu. Braised ox cheek pie / pork loin, ham hock and black pudding / grey mullet and chorizo, all got my juices flowing as they caught my eye like a barmaid flashing me her tits. This was approaching my ideal menu and the choices just got better and better. Finally, after much angst-ridden deliberation I settled on a fish dish. The cod, cockles and arborio fishcake came loosely formed and was lovely and heavy and filling, surrounded by a generous pool of cream and topped with sauce gribiche and a sliver of crisp cod skin. It felt like a cosy autumnal fish dish. At £12 it was very well priced. Added to that as an extra were some of the best chips I’ve had in a long time, possibly since that trip to The Breslin, thick and crunchy with fluffy insides, the whole thing acting as the antidote to the chilly weather outside.
The misses ordered chicken thighs with mustard mash and said the chicken was lovely and moist with a crisp skin. The wholegrain mustard in the mash was plentiful, giving the dish a mild kick. Care had been taken with the presentation as well, with the bones trimmed and cleaned spotless. For £10 this was a filling and satisfying dish
A cheese platter was ordered for £6 and was plentiful with four different cheeses and plenty of crackers and biscuits. The only dish we weren't happy with was also the most expensive on the menu. The Usk valley T-bone steak at £21 was a dish that pleased and annoyed in equal measure. The meat was of excellent quality and perfectly cooked but came alone on a plate, to be joined by a separate bowl of chips, a jug of bitter unpleasant jus and a ramekin of butter. This wasn't so much a dish as a fucking Lego set, and most striking of all was the complete lack of anything green. My friend asked if they could provide something and another small bowl of mixed leaves came out with a £2.50 price tag. The whole thing just felt a bit silly and out of place with the dishes we were served and that were being served around us.
The barman did a fine job of pulling the pints then rushing back and forth to the kitchen to get our food, but the workload was too much for one human being, and an enquiry as to the names of the cheeses we had, never got answered. Then a request for mustard saw it arrive as the last of the beef was being polished off. I assume they were short staffed on this visit or else that poor barman deserves a medal and a payrise.
This was my first visit to The Conway and I can't wait to go back and sample the rest of the menu. I've mentioned some bad and some good but on the whole I found the place a great success. It's not the gastropub of my dreams as the pub side is lacking but the food I tried is amongst the best in Cardiff. I only hope that we didn't just get lucky with our orders but that the ox cheeks and the pork loin and ham hock are just as good. I'm sure they are as the kitchen seems to take a real pride in it's ingredients, and is keen to show of it's suppliers, and that's very important and all too rare in Cardiff. I’ll keep you informed if the standard slips though, as although the house prices in Pontcanna mean I’ll never be a local of The Conway, I do hope to become a regular.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

On cooking an Octopus.

A friend of mine recently made an impulse purchase of octopus whilst out shopping and asked me if I knew of any good recipes. I had to admit that I had never cooked one before and this left me wondering why not? Octopus is tasty, easily available, and above all cheap, so I really couldn't understand why I’d never had a go. The reason I realised is that they're notoriously difficult to cook.  Tough rubbery octopus is never pleasant, and from all I’d heard it took a great skill and a lot of hard work to keep the beasts tender.
Then I remembered the great Harold McGee had taken on the problem and although he hadn't solved it conclusively, I thought I’d give his advice a go.
The octopus requires 3-4 hrs of cooking, but that time is easily spent sitting around watching telly.
This recipe is so simple I’ve decided to try and explain it in the style of that megalithic rock-faced arse Gordon Ramsay.
Here goes:

Octopus! - Legs remove! - Head in bin - boiling water! - Blanch legs, 30secs - Oven! 100 degrees - octopus in dry pan - 4hrs. Done!

McGee explains that an octopus’s body is made up primarily of collagen and for the end result to be tender and juicy, then that collagen needs to melt down and become gelatine. This process and the dry pan style of cooking has the added bonus that the octopus ends up sitting in a wonderful seafood sauce of it's own making.  My octopus was indeed tender, and had an incredibly strong flavour of the sea. So strong in fact that my seafood loathing girlfriend wretched when I forced her with the threat of violence to try it, and that, in my book is a result.
It hasn't yet made it to completed dish status as the strong ocean smell filled the house and annoyed the misses so I had to eat it briskly before she binned it, hence the lack of a final photo. I was however so impressed with the finished product that I’m now just waiting for her indoors to go away for a couple of days, so I can cook it again.

My umami mushroom burger

I've been developing this dish for quite some time now (I probably shouldn't say developing as that makes it sound grander than it actually is) since I stumbled across this video for bacon flavour shitake mushrooms on youtube http://bit.ly/dfKRS0. The idea intrigued me and I popped straight out to the shops to give it a whirl. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t fool someone to think they are actually eating bacon but they definitely are meaty tasting and have the crunch of crispy bacon. I've since been trying to make a mushroom burger that although I’m sure wont fool anyone as being meat, does offer the same satisfaction as a good beef burger. That's a pretty bold claim I know, but I’m a serious carnivore and I really do enjoy this burger.

The key to it is ramping up the umami quota. Umami translates roughly as delicious and if you're a savoury food lover then umami could be what you crave. I'm not going to go into too much detail where umami is concerned, mainly because I don't fully understand it myself, the science is far too complicated for me.

Anyway, back to the mushrooms. I slice the shitakes and coat them with a bit of olive oil and salt, then pop them on a baking tray and into the oven at 150C for one hour. You need to give them a bit of a shuffle every now and then. I then leave them to cool as I find the flavour is a lot stronger when they're cold.
Now onto step two. I use two large portobello mushrooms as the body of the beast, removing the stalk so they sit better in the roll. These need to be rubbed with what might be my favourite ingredient; fish sauce. This foul smelling nectar gets added to most of my dishes these days. People look at me funny when I add a good slosh to my ragu or stew, but the only time you notice it is when you don't add it. Food tastes sort of flatter without it ,the dish having less depth.
I allow the sauce with the addition of a bit of salt to soak in for ten minutes or so whilst I turn my attention to the roll.
I use a good crusty roll to provide a bit of resistance and bite and I also butter then grill them. This allows the butter to melt into the bread, and also adds some more crunch.
The portobellos now need to be grilled for 7 or 8 mins till cooked through and then a layer of grated parmesan is added covering the gills of the mushrooms. Pop them back under the grill to melt the cheese and you're set.
As for condiments well that's up to you. I use only english mustard on mine, but tomato sauce is good, as tomatoes are very high in umami. I have tried to make my own tomato sauce using a kilo of cherry tomatoes and although it had a tremendous kick to it, it also tasted like shit so I abandoned it.
So there you go my recipe for the perfect mushroom burger.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Bully's restaurant

Bully's restaurant
5 Romilly Crescent, 
South Glamorgan 
029 2022 1905

Gourmet night, meal for one including wine and tip = £77

I'm often filled with a sense of dread when recommending places to friends, which is why I will endeavour to make my reviews on here as honest and also, as critical as possible.  I dread sending someone to a restaurant where although I had a fantastic time, I know full well they could end up spending their hard earned cash and having a nightmare of an evening, leaving them to hate me more than they already did.  This however has never happened with Bully's, it's just not that sort of place.
On their website they explain the etymology of the the table d’hôte as originally being a farmhouse that welcomed friends and fed them well, and although it's cliched, dining at bullys does feel as though you're being welcomed into the owners home. The interior on first glance looks jumbled, even tacky but on closer inspection is actually idiosyncratic. A framed fat duck menu and various receipts from what I assume were the owners memorable trips away decorate the walls along with various pictures and nic-nacs, and a bar piled high with  food and wine reference books. It also has touches of real style from the frontage that reminds one of New York to the brilliantly understated drawings on the place mats.

The food I’ve had here has never been anything less than exemplary although my girlfriend did recently have a squid and chorizo starter (we seem to have ended up regretting that choice recently) that was a complete abortion.  The squid was tough as leather and the chorizo amounted to one micro-thin solitary slice. To be completely honest with you, I’m not entirely sure why we didn't send it back to the kitchen and I’m quite annoyed in hindsight that we didn't, as bullys is the sort of place that strives for better service and this rare glitch I’m sure would have been taken care of for us.

Every now and then, the owners like to have what they call a gourmet night, and since we had enjoyed the restaurant so much, we thought we'd sign up and give it a go.
The evening is structured around a "seven course" menu (the inverted commas there are me being pedantic, as I don't believe that an amuse bouche, nor palate cleansing sorbet should really count as a course) with each dish accompanied by a wine pairing.
We arrived at seven on a Thursday evening and sat down at a table loaded with various wineglasses, one of which contained a sparkling wine. Before we came here we weren't sure of how the night would pan out and whether or not we would have to buy more wine to keep us going between each course, but we soon found this wasn't to be the case, for as soon as our champagne flutes approached empty, the staff were on hand to top us back up. We knew right then that we were in for one hell of a boozy evening.
Our hosts for the evening were the owner’s son Russell and the lovely wine expert Hannah. Both of whom showed an incredible enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, what we were to be served.

The first dish out was the amuse, and it was for me the real highlight of what proved to be a really great night out. An espresso cup of courgette and garlic soup came topped with a drizzle of smoked oil. The smokiness hitting the nose before the beautifully rich and deep soup hit the tongue. This really is a fabulous creation and I can only hope to see it on the menu as a starter in it's own right, as it's far to good to stay confined to amuse status. I'm afraid I can't go into the wine parings as my knowledge of wine is practically nil so I’m afraid I’d do a disservice to Hannah, who took so much time to explain each one. Suffice to say that everything we drank that evening was delicious and plentiful.
Second out of the kitchen came an anchovy and olive tart, which I really couldn't make my mind up about. The anchovies were the best I’ve ever tasted, but their heavy umami savouriness contrasted too strongly with the sweet olives and tomato sauce that accompanied the tart. It felt like eating two different dishes in one, and was not something I’d be in a rush to order again.
The fish course though got the evening back on track. A thick chunk of halibut came on top of fine haricots verts and surrounded with vanilla sauce. Everyone on my table agreed that the fish was perfectly cooked, and the vanilla was a suprising accompaniment but worked well with the robust, meaty fish. I did feel that the dish needed another component, something crispy or crunchy to complete it, but nonetheless it was a fine dish.
It was now time for what was to be the most booze drenched dish I’ve ever been served. A Bombay rum sorbet served in a martini glass, drowning in alcohol. The rum was lovely as was the sorbet but it was all too sweet for me to finish so I ended up passing it to a friend who happily polished it off.
The main event was next and we were presented with the meat course of lamb shank in a meaux mustard sauce, with roasted root veg. Russell had introduced the dish as a refined, petite lamb cutlet, but what we were served was a gorgeous hunk of meat on the bone speckled with the mustard seeds of the sauce. This was how all lamb shanks should be. Our knives were un-called for as our forks did a grand job of teasing the tender meat of the bone, revealing the sticky, succulent fat. I loved this piece of meat to such an extent that I ended up picking the remnants from everyone else’s bones so that none would go to waste. The carrots were cooked to perfection, all sweet and caramelised but I thought the potatoes would have been put to better use mashed, as this dish was crying out for creamy mashed potato. All in all a bloody lovely dish.
We were all by now feeling very full, and very, very pissed when out came the cheese. A wooden board contained two cheeses, a grossmont and a beaufort. The former being soft and brie-like almost buttery in consistency and very mild. I adored it. The latter was far too strong for a cheese wuss like me, but everyone else seemed to prefer it, even if the smell of trench foot it gave off lingered in the air long after the platter was removed.
Finally after a very long and enjoyable evening we were served desert. The best way I can describe it is as a deconstructed snickers bar. A bitter dark chocolate, surrounded by a salt-caramel sauce and peanuts. It was a good dish, but I personally found the chocolate too bitter, although no one on our table failed to polish it off completely, some even rubbing their drunken fingers through the remnants of sauce left on the plate.
By the time we paid our bill and ordered taxis, we'd been in Bully's for four hours and what a four hours it had been. I was lucky enough when in New York to eat five courses at a michelin starred restaurant for just $50 (at the time £28) which was an absolute bargain, and Bullys gourmet night comes a close second in terms of value for money. I did have a few niggles with the food, but it was on the whole very good, and we were all wowed with the generosity when it came to topping up glasses. If you get the chance to partake in one of Bullys gourmet nights then I suggest you grab it with both hands. I will definitely be at the next one, although I know now to take the following day off work to recover

Ffresh restaurant

Ffresh Restaurant
Wales Millennium Centre, Bute Pl, Cardiff CF10 5AL029 2063 6465 

Meal for three including wine and tip = £105

The location Ffresh currently occupies has had somewhat of a troubled past with restaurants opening, failing and closing along with the tides in Cardiff bay. I wasn't even aware that Ffresh existed until I stumbled upon a review in a free Cardiff magazine. What grabbed my attention was the consultancy of Shaun Hill; the respected Michelin starred chef who now owns the walnut tree in Abergavenny. On the strength of reading this, and also that one of his dishes (I think it was a partridge pudding) was on the menu, we decided to give it a go and headed down there on a Saturday night. On reflection this was one of the best dining decisions we've ever made.
Everything about that first meal was fantastic.  Three of us ate there that first evening, and all were wowed by the intense flavour and creativity, and couldn't find a single fault with any of the dishes we ate.  Now you need to understand that this is a very rare occurrence for someone as miserable and bitter as myself who strives to find fault in everything, but as much as I tried I just couldn't. Even dessert which I generally only use to fill me up if I’m still peckish at the end of a meal brought a smile to my face. This meal was quite some time ago so I regret I can provide few details of the dishes but they really were fantastic and filling and washed down with a few bottles of beautiful Chilean Merlot, and the best was yet to come.
The bill for a meal is something that generally makes me miserable, but on this occasion left me strangely guilty. We had all just enjoyed one of the finest meals Cardiff has to offer and thanks to the deal they were running at the time (sadly no longer available) we were paying only a fraction of what it had been worth.
Only a few weeks earlier we had suffered through the worst dining experience of our lives at another Cardiff eatery and had now had the fortune to stumble across a gem.  I could sense Buddha re-apportioning karma in our favour with his chubby little hands.
We were however disheartened by the fact that we were almost the only people in a restaurant that looks like it could accommodate hundreds, and this worried us. Cardiff is not known for it's abundance of excellent restaurants, so the few that we do have, you would hope to be packed to the rafters on a Saturday night, but hopefully they make enough money from the lunch and pre-theatre crowd to stay comfortably afloat.

Our most recent trip was on a Friday night, and the same three of us who tried it the first time were back once again. In keeping with the spirit of that first meal (and because I’m skint) we decided to go for the cheapest option, which is now the pre-theatre menu.
It consists of a generous four choices at each course, and predictably all three of us wanted the same thing, but since I had to write this review I bit the bullet and ordered my second choice.
A haddock fishcake with chilli jam to start, was full of flavour with a crisp exterior but a little on the dry side as though it had sat around waiting for me a little too long. The chilli jam was sweet and complimented the cake. For my main I chose the chicken breast. This again was approaching dry but tasted so nice that I ended up nibbling at the small bone for every last morsel. It was served with the best bubble and squeak I’ve ever tasted. my mums that I grew up loving were proved piss-poor in comparison, but then she never charged me for her food so I’ll forgive her. A rich, deep gravy had me running my fingers round the bowl but the green beans that were provided were a little too al-dente, but this was a tiny complaint of an otherwise pleasing dish.
My companions won the overall meal though with a ham hock terrine and piccalilli, which tasted clean and crisp. Followed by a braised rump of lamb, the shoulder advertised not being available. The meat was rare and tender and meltingly good, causing my girlfriend to note that it was some of the best meat she'd ever tasted (which made me feel slightly insecure).
Deserts were a little disappointing, lacking the flare and inventiveness of the ones we'd tried on our first visit. A sticky toffee pudding did exactly what it said on the tin coming drenched in butterscotch sauce. The chocolate tart my girlfriend ordered came topped with a delicious vanilla-specked chantilly cream, which everyone adored.
After two bottles of that lovely Chilean Merlot we were all once again feeling very satisfied and pleased with our meal and I now just look forward to the next one.

A little side note here about the staff. It's always nice to get great service and the staff here are always incredibly friendly and attentive without being clingy and deserve a mention for being so bloody good at what they do. I'm yet to see them struggle through a full service but I like to think they do it with the same grace and courtesy as they've shown us on our many trips.

Village kitchen & bar

Village Kitchen & Bar
25 Merthyr Rd, Whitchurch, CARDIFF, South Glamorgan CF14 1DA029 2062 4000 

Meal for 4 including wine and tip = £110 (with 10%off)

I first ate here not long after it opened.  Back then it was a brasserie and had the ubiquitous glass counter stocked with fish and meats that modern brasseries seem to need to justify the name.  I'm not sure why a glass cabinet has become the defining feature of the brasserie and google has been no help, so if any readers know why, then please get in touch.
The food back then was good, not blow your socks of good, but a long time later I can still remember I had the crevettes, and I can still remember being quite pleased with them.
The place seemed to receive mixed reviews at the time, the majority not being too positive, so to be on the safe side, I left it a while before returning.

On my second visit the brasserie title had been shelved along with the cabinet and it was now the kitchen and bar.  It seemed to be styling itself as a neighbourhood restaurant serving good solid dishes, which it was.  My memory again is a little vague, although I remember my girlfriend’s starter as being a pate with toasts.  I remember this, as just like in most places the bread to meat ratio was slightly scew if (Why places don’t provide enough bread to accompany the meat I just don’t know could it be due to the kitchen staff not sampling the completed dish as a diner would?).  Anyway, we asked the waitress for some more bread and she happily and promptly obliged.  I had the pork belly and although my memory fails me slightly I remember being very satisfied with the dish and pleased with the overall experience.
So why after an enjoyable meal did it take us so long to return to place a two-minute walk from our house?  Well that would be due to the ambitious prices.  It was never extortionate but it was never a destination eatery either which the pricing seemed to suggest.  It always troubled me that a place as reliant on local clientele should feel the need to charge so much for the food.  The pricing of dishes is of course the restaurants prerogative and it's not my place to dictate what should and shouldn't be charged, but it is my place to take my business elsewhere if I feel I'm being overcharged and so I did.

This though I'm pleased to tell you has changed.  Some friends of mine recently ate there on a midweek two courses for £12.95 deal and said the food was excellent.  This is what neighbourhood eating is all about.  Good food at a price where you don't mind taking the extended family for a night out.
After hearing about the great food they were served and that the prices were now more realistic I decided it was high time we returned and so booked a table for a Saturday night.
We arrived 10mins early but were seated upstairs right away.  Menus were already on the tables and the drink service was swift.  We did however have to wait almost 40mins after ordering for our starters to arrive. It wasn't the greatest inconvenience on the night as we were enjoying ourselves but a wait of that long in other circumstances is a bit much and can often start to grind.
When they did arrive I’m afraid they were a bit hit and miss.  My girlfriend’s pate was once again short on the bread, but more was brought on request. She enjoyed it, and I agree it tasted great, but I found it edged to close too watery for my liking.  Two of us ordered the squid and chorizo with tomato salsa. My companion enjoyed his but I on the other hand, ever the contrarian thought it a disaster.  The squid was over cooked and rubbery, the chorizo undercooked and rubbery, and the salsa lacked any punch.  For some reason it was served in a beefed up martini glass which I had to empty onto a plate to make eating it possible. The final starter was scallops on a cauliflower puree, which my friend enjoyed, but said the puree could have been smoother.

I may have been disappointed with the starter but this wasn't to be the case with the main.  I ummed and aghed over the steaks but luckily decided on the pork belly that I’d enjoyed so much the last time, and what a dish it was.  It seemed they'd slaughtered a pig in my honour and presented half of the beast atop some crunchy cabbage with what I assume was a honey sauce (although don't quote me on that) The dish was MASSIVE. I can tell you now I loved every single mouthful. This place understands belly and it does it well.  The crackling was crisp and plentiful, the meat moist, the fat unctuous.
My fellow diners looked on in envy. That's not to say they didn't enjoy their dishes as a duck and noodle dish I’m told tasted great, if a bit too far medium than duck should be. A chicken ballotine was too dry but when extra sauce was asked for it was provided gratis. The final dish was red mullet which my friend had never eaten before so didn't really want to make any informed comment, but felt it too was a little on the dry side.
All in all it was quite an enjoyable meal.  One gripe being the vegetables that are served in bowls to be shared by everyone. They were well cooked and plentiful but didn't match some of the food we were served.  Winter veg has no real place with a dish of duck and noodles and I feel the diner would be better served with a complete individual dish, rather than the one size fits all vegetable approach taken here.

Whilst reviewing the restaurant I'd like to take the chance to offer a little bonus review.  This time it's about something very close to my heart; the fried breakfast.
I love a good fry-up.  It’s the first dish I started cooking for myself as a teen and although I've never become the best cook, my breakfast has evolved into a thing of beauty.  The reason for this is the effort I've put into finding the best ingredients.  My sausages are the best I've tried (and I've tried many), as is the black pudding.  My white pudding is Clonakilty white pudding, the best there is.  My mushrooms don't come from a tin but are button mushrooms cooked in butter and my hash browns are frozen direct from McCains (I know, but they are fucking great hash browns)
A restaurant like the village that caters for breakfasts I feel should take the same pride as myself when serving their diners, so you can imagine my disappointment as I witnessed the breakfast they serve deteriorate before my eyes.
Over the period of three or four weeks myself and some friends visited for breakfast on quite a few occasions, maybe six or seven times, and during this time we watched in horror as the breakfast served to us got worse and worse.  The final straw came one morning when dining alone with just a newspaper for company I was served a dish better suited for the bin.  The cheap ingredients made cheaper by the cooking.  The anaemic sausages hadn't been informed of the maillard reaction, and so left me feeling colder than the mushrooms and egg, but all this was trumped by a waitress so keen to improve efficiency, she decided to stand next to me in the middle of the restaurant and shout orders to the kitchen for ten minutes, rather than walk the 10 paces to the pass and speak at normal volume.  It was at this point that I decided my money would be better spent elsewhere and I’m yet to return.
I enjoy what you might term a more high end fry-up so it's with a heavy heart that I have to report what the village breakfast has become, and I truly hope it returns to better form, but at the moment I'm in no rush to sample it again.