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.