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.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

In praise of my butcher and how to cook pigs cheeks.

If you're reading this blog, then I assume I can credit you with an interest in food, therefore you might already be a regular visitor to your local butchers, maybe even good friends.  This first part of the post then, perhaps isn't for you, so feel free to skip straight to the recipe at the bottom if you like. The first part of this post is aimed at the supermarket customers who might be unaware of just what they're missing by not getting to know their local butcher a little bit better.
I'm not going to proselytise on the evils of supermarket shopping and how you're slowly killing your local area, as I fully understand the convenience supermarkets offer.
The thing is, if you live in Cardiff then you're lucky to live in a city where the art of butchery is still sticking a middle finger up to the supermarket giants.  I live in a village with three butchers within walking distance of my house.  I know not every area of Cardiff is so well served, but this is Cardiff after all, and you're never more than a 15min bus ride from Central market and the many butchers resident there.

So what does the independent butcher offer that the supermarket can't compete with?  Well firstly and possibly the most salient point I can make is sausages.  Butchers sausages are a fucking art.  Anything hand made with care, experience and pride is always going to trump a mass-produced product and this is certainly true of the sausage.
A recent advert for Richmond sausages shows an irritating folk band being beckoned home with the promise of insipid, pale, half pork, half fuck knows what sausages, well that's fine if like the people in the advert you're a twat, but you dear reader are not.
What you want is a fat sausage, a solid piece of pork and herbs, or laverbread, or apple. A lamb and mint, a beef and mustard seed, with minimal water so the thing doesn't explode in the frying pan, and that is the beauty of the butchers sausage.  It's how sausages are supposed to be, and sadly too many of us have been raised on the mass produced kind to realise this.

The second point I’d like to raise is on the art of conversation.  Your local butcher is a man who can acquire things.  He's the honest equivalent of that shifty guy you know in the pub.  The one who can sort you out with a dodgy set-top box for the free porn, or a bag of weed when there's a drought on.  What I’m saying is this, your butcher can get you stuff that your supermarket can't.
Again, I credit you with being a foodie and no doubt a foodie who's come across a recipe that calls for a cut of meat your supermarket doesn't stock.  I know this because I’m the same.  I watch Saturday kitchen and think "I want to make that dish, but where the fuck am I gonna buy pigs trotters?"  Sadly, the supermarket just wont be the place.
The answer I found was my local butcher.  Not only does he have trotters when I ask, but he generally gives them to me for free.
It's the same with everything.  You're kids want roast pork for Sunday lunch?  You could visit the supermarket and pay so much for a leg of pork that you end up selling your arse down the docks just to cover the mortgage or you could visit your friendly local butcher and pick up some tasty rolled pork shoulder for half the price.  Not only that but your butcher will happily cut you just the right amount and then advise you on how best to cook it.
Or maybe your irritating kids want steak on a Friday night?  The supermarket I'm sure will stock some rump, sirloin or fillet at a price to make your balls recoil into your stomach, but who wants that when you could pop to your butcher and pick up some aged rib-eye, sliced two inches thick for you and one inch thick for the kids.

The final point I'd like to raise is something I touched on in the last paragraph and that is price.  Supermarkets have made a fine art of promoting their value to the customer, and on something’s they are the cheaper option but this isn't always the case.  I agree certain products might well be cheaper at one time or another with offers and promotions, but your local butcher is always cheap, all year round. Lamb belly and knuckles can be bought for next to nothing, and a ham hock will make a weeks worth of sandwiches for only two quid. Filling your house with the most amazing smell and providing you with a deep, flavoursome stock as a bonus. That seems to me to be far better value than the cancer causing processed shit you've been lovingly stuffing your kids with. As for ready made burgers, kebabs and marinated meat, it is cheaper than the pre-packaged supermarket versions simply because it dispenses with the needless cardboard and shrink-wrap. Cheaper cuts of meat are popular nowadays, more so since the recession and that is something to be praised.  Supermarkets have noted this and begun promoting brisket and belly but the thing is, your local butcher has always stocked these things.  This is not a new market to him, it's something he understands well, and it's something we should take advantage of.

This leads me to one of my favourite cuts of all, and that is the pig cheek. It's a rare treat in our house as pigs only have two cheeks and the part that we need for this recipe is the small muscle that does all the chewing. My local butcher gets a pig a week, so collecting enough cheeks for a meal can take time. That's fine with me, as like truffles, or English asparagus, some things are appreciated all the more if you can't eat them every day. If you live near a waitrose (and this is one of the rare occasions where a supermarket deserves praise) then you could be lucky enough to buy pig cheeks in bulk. If you do see them there, then I suggest you buy them all, as they're dirt cheap, an absolute bargain. If however, you don't have a waitrose, but do have a butcher, then please ask him if he can supply you.

My butcher cuts me off the two jowls (which are essentially the entire side of the pig’s face), and charges at most two pounds, although they're often free. If you get given the same, then you might at first be slightly bewildered, as it's an odd looking piece of meat.
Now for the recipe below, all we need is the small, circular, dark muscle in the centre of the jowl, which you can easily remove at home by lifting it away from the rest of the meat and running your knife down behind it.
The rest of you're little piggies face is no longer needed, but there's no need to waste it. Rolled and roasted it becomes bath chap. Even better, you can practice your butchery by removing the skin, salting it heavily for a few days, and then popping it into the oven to make pork scratchings.
The meat you're left with after all this, can be placed in the oven on a low temperature, say 70°C for four hours. Then blasted at 200°C for half an hour, and you'll end up with the most succulent, fat dripping roast pork possible. Perfect, with some creamed cabbage and potatoes.

Back to the recipe. Three or four cheeks per person as a main should suffice, but as this is such a tasty cut, the more the merrier. As you know, pigs by their very nature like to eat a lot, and so the cheek is a well worked muscle. This means that although it's very lean, it can also be very tough. We sort this out with a long slow braise. The gentler, the better.
The addition of Chinese five spice in the recipe might seem a bit odd, but it really adds a tremendous amount, and should be added early to the onions, so that the star-anise in the five spice can work it's magic. Trust me on this, it's the five spice that really sets this dish off. Serve on rice, or mash potato and use the braising liquids as your sauce.


Pig cheeks
Mustard powder
1 Leek
1 Onion
Chinese five spice
400ml Chicken stock

1. Dust cheeks in flour and mustard powder
2. Sear cheeks in hot pan till browned and set aside
3. Brown the onion and leek with salt and pepper and a good dash of five spice
4. Pour in the stock and return the cheeks to the pan
5. Cover the pot tightly and simmer over a low heat for two hours, turning the cheeks every now and then.


Copthorne Hotel
Copthorne Way
02920 599100

Meal for two + tip = £55

I'm a bit obsessive and nerdy when it comes to reading menus. I often despair at those people who read heat magazine, and get excited about what celebrities are up to, but I never tell them that I’m the same about menus. I keep that to myself; it's my secret shame.
I read the menus of places I’ll never get to visit, and get all excited. The menus of places I’ll never afford to eat at get poured over almost pornographically, but it's the ones that I can visit that really get my attention.
Online, Raglans menu titillates people like me. The suggestion of eating salmon and broccoli terrine with soused cucumber or potted barbary duck and candied belgian endive gets my juices flowing, and we haven't even got to the mains yet. Fillet of halibut in a fine herb butter crust or duo of lamb neck fillet and confit shoulder rillette leave me sweating in anticipation. Therefore, I was a little disappointed when we were presented with the actual menu.
That's not to say it was bad, as some things still excited me. Sadly, when it was presented with a copthorne classics menu of fish and chips, burgers and pies it slightly lost its appeal. I'd had the wind knocked of my sails a bit as I realised that I’d been slightly naive in expecting so much from a place that wasn't so much a restaurant with rooms, in the style say of The Hardwick, but more, rooms with a restaurant.

I settled on a starter of wood pigeon breast on puy lentils, whilst the misses ordered the twice baked cheese soufflé with grape jam. Mine was fantastic. The breasts were as rare and tender as I’m sure it's possible to get them, and they sat atop just the right amount of puy lentils so as not to be considered healthy. However, it was the red berries that came with the dish that really set it off. The acidity was just what was needed to liven up the puy lentils, and really did justice to the pigeon breast.

The misses on the other hand wasn't so pleased. The twice baked part of her soufflé had been overlooked and she was given what looked like a cheesy deflated yorkshire pud, that was completely stone cold. It was duly sent back and she watched me spend the next ten minutes smiling as I tucked into my dish. When I was finished, the maitre d' came and plonked her now warm soufflé on the table and wandered off without saying a word. I was annoyed at the bad manners, but I doubt as annoyed as the misses was with the miserable looking little dish she had been given. I think she worried we'd already caused enough of a scene by sending the first pile of crap back, so she made the most of it. I say this as not only did the dish look shit, to me it tasted worse, almost rotten.

Anyway, after that sorry little episode we sat waiting for the mains and studied our surroundings. Raglans is half wood and half window. The wood half is boring, the only adornments being plates with past AA rosettes, tacked up here and there. It has a real golf club feel to it. The window half is slightly less boring, with excellent views over PC world and "the hairy blokes discount furniture store" (honestly, it exists). Worse of all, the other diners looked bored or boring. Middle aged men dressed like Jeremy Clarkson sat alone reading, or in pairs loudly discussing business. The misses (who bless her, had dressed up for the occasion) and I, sat talking in whispers about the food so as not to be overheard. Ambience is not something Raglans does well.

The mains arrived and I gave up on enjoying the night. We'd only had a glass of wine each as the winelist is so incredibly overpriced, and I really needed to be drunk to enjoy this meal. My dish of grilled woodland pork chop had been ordered partly as a test. A good kitchen can keep a pork chop moist, partly with correct cooking, but also by choosing the right cut. A fatty piece of pork will take a lot of the strain off the chef by keeping itself nice and moist. The pig I was served though had spent its life working out in the hotel gym. I was sad that I met this pig in death, but meeting such a lean, mean fighting machine in life would have been almost as bad. It was huge! I mean Herculean and had not a single piece of fat anywhere. The grilling it had received added a burnt taste that only made it drier. It came with some of the fattiest, tastiest bacon I’ve ever eaten, but that just wasn't enough to save the dish.
The misses had ordered ham wrapped chicken and was none too impressed. She tried desperately to find the rosemary in the advertised "rosemary jus" but was left perplexed by the sauce on her plate.

We sat back considering dessert as the staff started bringing out toasters and laying out the tables for the breakfast service. I know hotels need to be prepared for the morning rush, but couldn't they at least wait until the dinner guests have left? It didn't really matter though as by now, dessert at Raglans just wasn't what we wanted. What we wanted was the bill and as sharp an exit as possible.

I've made it a point of principle with this blog to try to avoid reviewing a place after just one visit. However, if that one visit makes a return trip completely unlikely I feel I should. It's a shame the place feels so sloppy, as my starter really was great, but I can't recommend a place on the strength of just one dish. Especially as all the other dishes annoyed me so much. If you're staying at the copthorne hotel and you've money to burn, then by all means head to Raglans, and for those of you who get as turned on by menus as me, heed this warning. Raglans is a siren best avoided.