Thursday, 30 June 2011

Puccini Mediterranean Tapas Lounge, Cardiff Review


When we got home late from work on Tuesday evening, Mrs G and I couldn’t be arsed to cook. We’re supposed to be saving up for our inevitably expensive summer holiday  to Las Vegas (I’ve already planned about 30 meals to eat in 7 days) and as such we’d resolved to not spend any money on frivolous meals out. Well that resolution lasted for about 48 hours. We decided we’d use our Groupon voucher for Puccini’s as it’s located just round the corner from where we live meaning we could both have a few beers without any need for a Mexican standoff over who’s turn it was to drive.

Puccini’s describes itself as a Mediterranean Tapas Lounge and Pizzeria. What exactly is a Mediterranean Tapas lounge? (If you want to skip my mini diatribe which is about to ensue then please skip to the end of the next paragraph). I learnt a few things during my years in advertising and also coincidentally from last nights biscuit challenge on The Apprentice. If you’re trying to sell something you’ve got to be clear about what your product is and then communicate it clearly to your target audience. Puccini’s fails on both of these counts. Surely with a name like Puccini’s the menu must be dominated by Italian food. Or perhaps the Tapas element of the description means it’s going to be dominated by Spanish food? Wrong. In fact the menu is dominated by Greek / Middle Eastern style mezze and kebabs. There is some pizza and pasta on the menu but it’s towards the back end and it certainly doesn't feel like the focus. Secondly, take a look at the exterior and interior of the restaurant. Granted there is a frescoed back dining room which has a Mediterranean vibe but the front room (where we chose to sit) and the exterior strongly resemble a cafe. Just take a look at the coffee cup logo. 


I’m not trying to be critical for the sake of it. I just think Puccini’s could be a hell of a lot more successful if they defined themselves more clearly and communicated this to the general public. If I was the owners I’d probably go down the Middle Eastern route as I get the feeling this is where the heart of the menu lies (we drank Lebanese beer and there’s even a Lebanese pizza on the menu). Equally, I think there’s a gap in the market for this type of restaurant at the Wellfield road end of Albany road. Rant over. I’ll now talk a little bit about the meal as I really should have done in the first place.

Our deal allowed us to order £40 worth of food for the price of £15. We decided we’d opt for tapas (mezze really as I’ve mentioned in my rant) and ordered a large range of dishes to share. Our order was taken promptly and it took about ten minutes for our food to be brought. I should acknowledge the fact the restaurant was pretty quiet and there wasn’t too much prep involved for our meal but I still think this is pretty rapid. However, we did have one gripe with the service. As we were sat round the corner from the bar area we were a little out of sight and mind from the serving staff. This meant we weren’t offered any more drinks during our meal and so eventually I gave up on waiting and wandered over to the bar to order some more. 

Beer - We drank Lebanese Almaza during the evening. This was a really good beer and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it in future. It’s really light with a good malt taste to it. 
Falafel - Excellent. Perfectly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Well seasoned to boot. One of the best falafels I’ve ever eaten.
Hummus - Very good as well. Nice and smooth with a good hit of tahini.
Baba Ghanoush - A smokey hit of aubergine in dip format. A very good example of this dish.
Borek - A real disappointment. I’m used to flaky layers of filo interleaved with spinach and feta. This was more springroll like in texture with a filling which I’m pretty sure consisted of a mixture of melted generic red and yellow grated cheeses.
Calamari - Very good. Crisp, grease free batter and soft squid meat without the chew-factor.
Dolmades - A very good example. Served hot, these vine leaves melted in the mouth and contained well seasoned & cooked rice.
Broad beans with chorizo - Disappointing. The tomato sauce tasted pretty bog standard and the chorizo was lacking in quantity and flavour. 
Kibbeh - A crisp casing of cracked wheat and lamb stuffed with a perfectly tender mix of well seasoned minced lamb and onion. Very good indeed.
Greek Salad - Well dressed mixed leaves, tomatoes, feta and olives. Firstly I’m not a big fan of leaves in a Greek salad as it rather dilutes the intensity of flavour. This was compounded by the fact the feta and olives were both pretty bland.
Lebanese flat bread - It came with the Hummus. I prefer it to pitta as it's got a bit more chew and it's lighter.

All in all a real mixed bag. Some of the dishes were executed brilliantly but a couple were really mediocre. I think most of these issues could be ironed out with a little more focus on the quality of some of the ingredients used (olives, feta, chorizo). With the Groupon, our meal was very well priced and Puccini’s offer a regular deal through their website where you can get £30 worth of Tapas for £15. At this price I’d say Puccini’s is probably worth a go. If you do go and opt for the Italian food then please let me know how you get on. On another day I might have been ranting that Puccini’s should define themselves as an Italian restaurant instead of a Middle Eastern restaurant........
The Details: Puccini's, 120 Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff,CF24 3RU, Telephone - 02920 49 30 31 Web - http://www.puccinicardiff.com

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Ffresh restaurant Cardiff review, Bryn Williams Guest Chef Dinner


Now that we’ve come to the end of the Great British Menu / Masterchef 2011 season I’m feeling somewhat desolate. The Apprentice has partially healed the pain but it’s a rebound relationship. It’s an idiot that I laugh at for an hour to make me feel better about myself. In contrast, I eagerly anticipate GBM each year and find myself waiting patiently to see which new talent I will have to add to my to eat list (this year it was Paul Ainsworth, last year it was Tom Kerridge). All the way back in 2006 I added Bryn Williams to my list when he represented Wales in GBM whilst still a relative unknown and worked his way to the banquet to cook for the Queens 80th birthday party. I’ve never got round to visiting his restaurant Odette’s in Primrose Hill, London but fortunately last Tuesday night Bryn brought his show on the road to Cardiff for one night only.

Frresh restaurant in the Millennium Centre recently started playing host to a series of guest chef nights. Wales’ best chefs take over the restaurant for a night and cook their food for around 80 guests.  Unfortunately we couldn’t make it to the first event a few months ago featuring Shaun Hill but as soon as I heard tickets for Bryn Williams were on sale I snapped them up. In relative terms these events are very good value if the Bryn Williams night is anything to go by. £45 buys you canapés, 4 courses of food, 5 good (quality and size) glasses of wine and coffee.

The menu. It gets bigger if you click on it.
Having paid the full whack up front (they were let down by a number of no shows last time even with a £10 deposit) we rather neatly received our tickets in the post a few weeks ago. Getting tickets for a meal out is pretty cool and I think the logical progression of this would be wristbands on arrival at a restaurant and an array of merchandise to buy when you leave (I’d love a Michel Roux Jnr t-shirt or Glynn Purnell pin badge). Anyway, the tickets informed us to get the Millennium Centre for 7:30PM and so we did.

On arrival we were given a very friendly yet slightly amusing briefing explaining the proceedings of the evening. On the basis of this briefing (I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do otherwise), we headed over to get a glass of wine and waited for the canapés to sidle on over to us. These comprised of a simple yet effective piece of melon wrapped in Carmarthen ham and also a salmon roulade. I was gutted to miss out on the 3rd canapé which was a pea and parmesan risotto ball. These looked and sounded the most exciting of the bunch by far.


A quick mention must be made about the wine. I’ll mention it up front so I don’t have to pretend that I know what I’m talking about anywhere else. The wines supplied by New Generation Wines were all very quaffable (with description like that I should be a wine critic). My favourite was the dessert wine, a Sélection Chenin Blanc which had a honey like nectar quality to it. I also really enjoyed a Gamme Cépages rosé served with the starter which was remarkably refreshing – the rest of the group found it a little watery. If you want elaborate descriptions of the wine matches then see the picture below.

Wine tasting notes
Once we’d been shown to our table, Bryn made a brief speech. He spoke well, joking that visiting Cardiff wasn’t really a homecoming as he’s from North Wales. On a more serious note he emphasised the importance of taking pride in local Welsh produce. Finally he explained the limitations of serving 80 people simultaneously meant that he would be serving a slightly more pared back interpretation of his food.

Bryn in action. I think this photo is caption contest worthy.
Bread. You can often tell how a meal is going to go based on the standard of the bread. This bread was the nuts. Fresh, warm and dense, a simple white roll and a rosemary roll were executed to perfection.


Beef Carpaccio, artichoke & radish salad, horseradish. Onto the starter and this was the standout dish of the evening for me. Melt in the mouth wafer thin slices of beef served with a creamy horseradish sauce with very subtle oomph so that it didn’t overshadow the flavour of the main ingredient. The radish, watercress and raw artichoke (I’ve never had it raw before but it’s a good one) provided added texture and a bit of pepperiness. I could have eaten this 3 times over.


Wild sea trout, wild garlic & asparagus. Perfectly crisp skin and moist fish. Preserved lemon balanced the richness of the buttery sauce. Broad beans, samphire and asparagus were delightfully fresh. The shrimp provided an added dimension but I thought they offered a little too much chew.


Roast pork belly, ginger & honey carrots, coriander. Wonderfully moist pork, sweet carrots, and a delicious oriental twist from the coriander leaves. However, a little extra sauce wouldn’t have gone a miss and the advertised ginger in the carrots was a bit too subtle.


Rice pudding, strawberries and basil. My second favourite dish of the night. It was historic. Perfectly creamy rice pudding. The rice had just the right amount of bite and the fresh, fruity sharpness of the strawberry coulis and fresh strawberries lightened the dish whilst the crisp honeycomb and basil worked perfectly.


All in all the evening was an absolute cracker. The food and wine were top notch, the atmosphere was laid back and friendly. The next event is on the 29th September and will feature the Michelin starred Bryan Webb from Tyddyn Llan in Denbighshire. It’s sure to sell out quickly like the previous events so if you’re interested I’d get in contact with the Millennium Centre to find out when the tickets are going on sale. Also there’s been talk on Twitter that Bryn might be planning on setting up a pop up restaurant in Cardiff. If he does, I’d recommend a visit.

Attempt at doing an arty shot
The Details: Ffresh restaurant, Wales Millennium Centre, Bute Pl, Cardiff CF10 5AL Tel: 029 2063 6465, Web: http://www.wmc.org.uk

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Thai House, Cardiff restaurant review, food blog


Having ducked out of the very busy yet highly promising opening party of The Potted Pig (I was too hungry to wait around to try the beautiful looking suckling pig – If I’d waited any longer I’d have ended up stealing a leg) Mrs G and I went in search of some food to satisfy my pork pangs.  We settled on Thai House, a restaurant which has been on my ‘to do’ list for a long while.

The Potted Pig's suckling pig
Thai House is one of Cardiff’s most well known restaurants. It was the first Thai restaurant in the UK outside of London when it opened in 1985, it has received numerous national press and TV mentions, and has a list of celeb fans which includes Rhodri Morgan and Gruff Rhys. Thai House’s reputation somewhat precedes itself.

Even if the menu is a bit pricey (unusually there is a minimum charge of £17.50 per person during evening opening) it is a real humdinger. The combination of too many delicious sounding dishes and my hunger led us to opt out from what would have been a lengthy debate by plumping for a set menu (A - £39.95). Even though the food sounded incredible on paper, would it live up to the Rhys Ifan’s claim Without doubt the best Thai food I've tasted outside Thailand.“? 

Probably not. Even though some of the food we ate was exceptional and the service was incredibly friendly, there were a few too many mediocre dishes, the prices were just a little too steep and the service occasionally lacked efficiency (we waited for dessert, a plate of ice cream for around twenty minutes).

Mrs G always insists on taking a photo on the macro setting
Starters


Bor Bia – Spring rolls filled with vermicelli, pork and Thai mushrooms – Crisp pastry, slightly lacking in the flavour department and inconsistent in filling; some were full of almost only vermicelli whilst others had mostly pork and almost no vermicelli. 

Tord Mun - Cod fishcakes – Unfortunately there was an overpowering flavour of lemongrass and the texture of the fish patties was rather homogenous.

White toast -?????? 

Beef and chicken Satay – The highlight of the starters by a clear margin. Beautifully tender meat, well spiced, without doubt the best satay I have ever eaten.

The dips accompanying the starters (sweet chilli sauce, peanut sauce and chilli and cucumber relish) were also top drawer  

Mains

Top side of Welsh beef with Thai mushrooms and Welsh leeks in oyster sauce– Shed loads of really tender meat served in a beautifully smoky oyster sauce. Again, perhaps the best version of this dish I’ve ever tried. 


Crispy trout in red curry sauce –Crisp skinned pieces of trout with perfectly moist flesh. A good hit of ginger, chilli and coconut contributed in the sauce contributed to an excellent dish. 


Chicken Massasaman curry – Southern style chicken curry with peanuts and potatoes – The potato was nice and soft but the chicken was a little dry and the sauce did not have as much of a peanut hit as other versions I’ve eaten.


Dessert

Green tea sorbet and Lemongrass ice cream - A ridiculously smooth sorbet with a great taste of sweetened green tea and the ice cream had just the right amount of lemongrass.


All in all Thai House served us some real knockout dishes but I feel these were cancelled out by the low points. I’d visit Thai house again but I’ll be sampling Cardiff’s other Thai offerings first. 

The Details
3-5 Guildford Crescent, Churchill Way, Cardiff. CF10 2HJ Tel: 029 2038 7404, http://www.thaihouse.biz 

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Gilbert Scott, London, Review - Guest post by GourmetGilly

On Sunday I met up with the family in London at the wedding of a close family friend. Unfortunately I had to drive back to Cardiff whilst the party was still in full swing, missing out on dancing to a nifty soul band and also on the large quantity of free booze which was being served. In addition to this catalogue of woes, I also had to forego a family meal at Marcus Wareing's new restaurant The Gilbert Scott which was booked in for Monday evening. Thankfully, my brother gourmetgilly offered to step into the breach and write a review of his experience. His words are written below....


It’s over two years since I wrote my last guest blogs (having never had the courage to pen my own) and the experience was enjoyable and surprisingly addictive. So when I told my younger brother that I would be visiting the recently opened Gilbert Scott restaurant in London with the rest of the family, it was suggested that I should once again turn my hand to the fine art of blogging and review the meal.

The Gilbert Scott opened for business in May this year. It is the flagship restaurant of the recently refurbished Renaissance Hotel at St Pancras station. For those interested in a bit of history the restaurant is located in what was originally the Midland Grand Hotel, originally designed by a certain Sir George Gilbert Scott.

This was a belated birthday celebration for our uncle Richard - who had taken advantage of my parents’ generous offer to buy him dinner and cleverly booked in to somewhere on the upper end of the price scale (approx £50 per head) - on the premise that it was in a convenient location from his apartment. Our main concern was whether the family’s taste buds would be as discerning as our junior member – certainly there were no fears that our appetites would match those of Cardiff’s most gluttonous food critic.

Due to a two hour dining slot (and a slightly late arrival), we had to skip drinks in what appeared to be a very pleasant bar adjoining the restaurant. We were escorted through in to the main dining area which was light and airy, with a beautiful high ceiling and not overly formal atmosphere. The restaurant staff were friendly enough, although it still seemed as if they were getting the hang of things with their relatively recent opening. Our waiter changed four or five times over the course of the evening – a little strange, although towards the end of the meal it meant we were happy to grab the attention of whichever unfortunate soul was walking past our table.


The menu choice was wide enough to be interesting, but not too extensive to befuddle. Following on from some heavy eating in the preceding twenty four hours, it was agreed that two starters between four would be plenty. I opted for the bacon olives, uncle Richard the baked onions, and mum and dad were happy to agree.


Whilst we waited for our starters we were presented with a generous pair of bread baskets. This was one of the most lauded parts of the meal – we enjoyed a light and fluffy rye, with fresh caraway seeds, and a well flavoured wholemeal with just the right amount of crumble.

Bacon Olives
Starter – Bacon olives, pork and herbs, endive and shallot starters

Definitely the pick of the two starters the five bacon olives were swiftly divided between the four diners (I’m not sure who got the fifth but it wasn’t me). A nice meaty flavour but not too overpowering and a good crunch to the salad – I’d have this one again.

Baked Onions
Starter – Baked onions, nutmeg, thyme and almond stuffing

This turned out to be a baked onion and not baked onions and so required some careful dividing skills from uncle Richard. The onion tasted like onion with little additional flavour – however the stuffing was a crunchy pleasure and was appreciated by myself and the onion cutter. 

Cornish seabass
Main – Cornish seabass, Cullenskink pan fried with smoked haddock and potato sauce

My main course was very enjoyable indeed. The sea bass was fried just to the right degree and I was pleased to get two whole pieces. The fish itself was good but the highlight of this dish was the Cullenskink – a rich and creamy affair with a perfect smoky balance from the haddock. It complemented our shared sides of colcannon, spinach and chips very well and really brought the plate to life.

Pigeon in a pot
Main – Kentish pigeon in a pot:  pigeon, mushrooms, thyme, prunes

Uncle Richard had opted for the pigeon and seemed happy with his pick when the lid was lifted from the pot. He still seemed happy once the pot had been cleaned. The two pigeon breasts were succulent and he described the texture as ‘similar to kidney’. After my taster portion I’m not sure I agreed - but an interesting texture nevertheless. Another good dish.

Soles in coffins
Main – Soles in coffins: lemon sole, vermouth cream, Morecambe Bay shrimps, mace, potato

Certainly the best presented of the main courses, my father was predictably disappointed with the portion size (which would be fine for the non-glutton). I only tried the sauce for this one – and it tasted fantastic. I was assured the rest of the dish was fairly average – I’m sure if it had been double the size it would have been better!!

Tweed Kettle
Main  – Tweed Kettle: seatrout with a herb, lemon and nutmeg crust

Probably the least appetising looking main, some choice comments were made before my mum returned from the rest room to start eating. On looking at the photo, a fish spotted dick with custard springs to mind. I’m not sure what the sauce was – mum said it was fine – and the fish was rated below the one at the previous day’s wedding reception.


Following mains we decided we would crack on with dessert as well. Uncle Richard opted out so it was three between four this time. Another mathematical conundrum appeared to have been easily solved when Richard ordered an empty plate and a spoon.

On our arrival at the restaurant, we had spotted Masterchef’s own Gregg Wallace. Unrecognised by my father and uncle, my mother and I assumed (incorrectly) that he was the chef of the restaurant and were very excited to see him in the flesh. It was only on waiting for our desserts that we realised he was there to eat and not to cook.  A mistimed paparazzi effort from my mum meant that we didn’t have a picture for the blog – a new plan was required.

Lord Mayor's trifle
Dessert – Lord Mayor’s trifle, pineapple, coconut and rum

My father’s pick and again he was disappointed (less so with the portion size this time). After a small taste I agreed that this was fairly mediocre – even a triple sized portion would probably have only elevated this dish to average.

Apple Amber

Dessert – Apple Amber - baked Bramley apple, meringue, clotted cream

My mother’s choice this time and it fared only a little better than my father’s. We liked the presentation of the meringues on the tart but sadly this was the dish’s only ‘crowning’ moment.

Jaffa Cake
Dessert – Orange marmalade jaffa cake, Earl Grey tea ice cream

Unanimously voted as the pick of the desserts, I was once again pleased with my selection. This dish caught my eye on the menu mostly for the Earl Grey tea ice cream – I have tasted some wonderful green tea ice cream in my time and hoped this would provide a similar delight. On tasting though, the Earl Grey flavour wasn’t really there. However, it was the jaffa cake that was the real highlight of the plate. The sponge was light and moist, the chocolate under the base was rich, and the orange topping was fresh and zesty. Excellent.

So back to Gregg – how could we get some souvenir of his presence to liven up the blog? Hats off to mum for this one. On our way out she confidently strode up to his table, with her dessert menu and luminous green biro in hand, and asked for his autograph. A quick smile and a flourish of the pen from Gregg and we were in business. All we lacked was a cheeky soundbite for the review – can’t have it all I guess...


After dinner we headed back to Uncle Richard’s conveniently located apartment for coffee. Before heading inside he suggested we pop up to the roof for to admire the views – we weren’t disappointed. This was one of the nicest London evenings that I can recall.


As we watched the sun set, we decided how we would rate our meal for the review. Good, but not great, was the overall verdict. ‘And the portions were definitely too small’ my father added.......

The details: The Gilbert Scott, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, London, NW1 2AR. Website: http://www.thegilbertscott.co.uk Telephone: +44 207 278 3888

The Gilbert Scott on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Clark's Pie Shop, Cardiff Review, Food Blog


 As someone who’s not from Cardiff, I’m constantly relying on my friends to recommend places to try which may seem obvious to the local but not to the non-native. So when Morg asked me yesterday whether I’d been to the Clark’s pie shop before and the answer was no, he suggested we rectify the situation immediately by a next day breakfast visit. Not one to turn down a morning pastry eating session we set off with Rhys “the bucketman” in tow on a Grangetown pie roadtrip. 

Clark’s pies are to Cardiff what Manze’s are to parts of London and Gregg’s (pre-global expansion) are to Newcastle. They are woven into the tapestry of local life. There’s a lengthy family history (see the picture below for a historical essay), they’re the pie of choice at Cardiff city football matches and they’re available in chippies across the city. It’s here I must disclose that shortly after moving to Cardiff a few years ago I was marched to a chip shop on Caroline Street to sample one of the famous Clark’s pies by Mrs G and I was left distinctly underwhelmed. My only memory of this initial encounter was of a mince pie which consisted of far too much dry pastry. As a result I’ve never sampled another Clark’s pie until this day and I wish it hadn’t taken me so long. Apparently it’s the freshness of the pastry of the pies obtained from source which makes them incomparable to those distributed to chippies which are reheated and may be kept in a heat cabinet all day or longer…. 



There are 4 branches of Clark’s pies (2 in Cardiff & 2 in Bristol) all of which are run as independent businesses and bake their own pies utilising slightly different recipes. According to Morg, the Grangetown branch is the best and so this is where we were headed.  Located on the corner of a row of terraced houses on Bromsgrove & Paget streets, in the heart of Grangetown the pie shop is a throwback to decades gone by. The old signage & dated, shabby interior simply add to the charm & authenticity of the place. What’s more there’s nothing more reassuring than somewhere who’s menu essentially consists` of small pie or large pie served hot or cold. Much akin to my favourite burger joint In’n’Out which serves either hamburger, cheeseburger or double-double (i.e. double cheeseburger) it shows total confidence in keeping things simple and done properly.

We all ordered a large hot pie and I set to work the moment I was outside the shop. The golden coloured shortcrust pastry was a revelation compared to my previous encounter. A thick layer of golden pastry surrounds the whole pie. It's perfectly crisp on the outside, soft in the middle and well moistened on the interior by the oozing beef mince, onion & gravy filling (a generous hit of pepper cuts through the richness of the pastry perfectly). 

 


A final note must be made about the unique nature of the thick pastry on the base of the pie which means Clark's pies are served without a foil tray. However not having a tray to catch leaking mince means there are certain logistical issues which need to be negotiated; as a novice Clark’s pie eater, I managed to spill piping hot mince all over my shorts within a matter of minutes.  Before my next visit I’ll get some tips from the extensive Clark’s pie guide written by a dedicated Cardiff City & Clark’s pie fan. 

On the return from the pie shop we stopped off at the newsagent round the corner for a pistachio kulfi ‘palate cleanser’ at my request and then made a final pitstop at Bruton’s bakery for dessert by order of the bucketman. According to him the coffee & walnut tarts are pretty fine and I must say I agree. I can’t think of a more fitting dessert after a shortcrust meat pie than a shortcrust cream pie. Deliciously crisp shortcrust pastry encased a generous helping of fresh cream and was covered with a sweet coffee icing and a walnut on top. 





It’s a shame we don’t have a local Clark's pie shop in Penylan (apparently the original Clark’s pie branch was located on Donald street in Roath) but then to be honest a pie breakfast every Saturday wouldn’t really be the best idea. 

The Details: Clark's Pies, 23 Bromsgrove Street, Grangetown, Cardiff, CF11 7EZ 
Phone: 029 2022 7586, Opening hours: Mon-Sat 10Am-1:30PM,
Web: http://www.clarkspies.co.uk 

Brutons Bakers, 104 Clare Road, Grangetown Cardiff, CF11 6RT Tel: 029 2025 7035