The Park Hotel
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.