Friday, 31 August 2012

The Dogs, Edinburgh restaurant review

We’ve just got back from summer hols in Edinburgh. A busy few days were spent seeing concerts, eating, watching comedy, eating, checking out the pandas at the zoo, eating and celeb spotting. In the space of 5 days, I spotted more c’lebs than I have in the last 10 years. Sir Chris Hoy, Tom Kitchin, Konnie Huq, Sue Perkins andTed from Scrubs were all sighted doing various mundane activities. However, one spot ranks above all others – eating in the same restaurant as Jay Rayner.

On Sunday evening as we were paying our bill at The Dogs, in walked Jay Rayner.  I of course made no attempt to say hello to my food hero but instead clammed up, started sweating, made a quick exit and then tweeted him. That’s how I roll….

This sighting has a double layer of excitement. Will I be able to say that I was there when Jay Rayner reviewed a restaurant? If so, will he also think the honeycomb parfait was too light on flavour and sum up his meal by describing it as the dog’s proverbials?  I for one will be refreshing the Guardian website at midnight on Saturday to find out. 

Just in case he does, here are my views to use a comparison.

The Dogs looks familiar. The paper menus, simple sounding dishes utilising cheap cuts of meat, mismatched crockery and higgledy-piggledy furniture are all widely seen in gastro-pubs up and down the land. Except, it isn’t a pub, it’s a restaurant. So I guess that makes The Dogs a gastro-restaurant.

To start, I ordered the fried lamb breast (£4.95) – A crisp, moist, fatty piece of meat sat on top of a butternut squash puree infused with rosemary. The meat was concealed by a hillock of lightly dressed rocket scattered with almonds. Every flavour and texture complimented the next perfectly.  

Mrs G’s classic starter of stilton, walnut and apple salad (£4.95) was executed accurately and generously.

Somehow Mrs G persuaded me to not have the pork belly (£11.95) on the premise that I always order it and that it was her turn. Thankfully, I managed to eat half of hers due to the epic portion size. A hulking tranche of excellent meat was accompanied by roast vegetables and some  highly serviceable buttered new potatoes and mangetout. The advertised bacon and mushroom stuffing appeared absent but was compensated for by a thick meaty peppery sauce.

My fish stew (£11.50) was Mary Poppins’ handbag-esque in proportions. Spoonful after spoonful brought up tender squid, flakes of white fish, plump mussels and juicy prawns. The presence of a few vegetables and herbs, an accompanying baton of garlic fried bread and the lubrication of a creamy vegetable broth balanced the dish well.

A side of dripping cooked chips (£2.95) were crisp, fluffy and meaty. Sadly, the presence of their skins made them closer to their poorer sibling, the wedge.

My dessert was the only real hiccup of the meal. A rather too subtle honeycomb parfait (£4.50), drenched in a generic tasting chocolate sauce was saved by the presence of some superb crisp treacly honeycomb.  

Mrs G’s lemon posset (£3.80) in contrast was as good as it gets. Light, sharp and creamy, it was elevated by the crispness of candied lemon peel and a stonking honey and oat biscuit.

What else is there to say about The Dogs except that the service was rapid and friendly, and that it's really excellent value? Oh yeah, it goes without saying that our meal was the dog’s proverbials. 

Update - Jay Rayner just dashed my hopes by informing me that he reviewed The Dogs back in 2008.Still, he did sort of mention the dog's proverbials which kind of makes up for it. 

The Details:
Address - 110 Hanover Street, Edinburgh,  EH2 1DR
Telephone - 0131 220 1208

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Bar 44 Tapas, Cowbridge restaurant review

One of my favourite hobbies is eating snacks whilst having a drink. It ranks nearly as highly as my other favourite pastime – eating meals.

If there’s a nationality which takes simultaneous boozing and snacking to their heart more than any other, it has to be the Spanish. After all, they’ve made a national cuisine out of it. Sadly, the closest I’ve ever got to eating authentic tapas are the microwaved crimes perpetrated by La Tasca. Not very close then.

Bar 44 Tapas has been on my radar for a long time. I first read about them in The Good Food Guide and then heard that the daddy of British tapas, Jose Pizarro had visited.  However, because of its Cowbridge location (there’s no way Mrs G was going to persuade me to be designated driver again) we hadn’t got round to visiting. 

Until last Saturday lunch time…..

As Bar 44 don’t take reservations except on a Sunday lunch, when they serve up family paellas, I had visions of a Pamplona style crowd thronging Cowbridge High Street waiting for their tapas fix. Fortunately, after a brief 5 minute wait at the bar, a table became free and we were ready for action. 

We ordered enough dishes to feed the population of a small principality. I washed them down with a glass of ice cold sherry.

A selection of good fresh bread (£3.50) - warm wholemeal, white and olive bread – was served with some top notch Arbequina olive oil and Pedro Ximenez sherry balsamic.

Some absolutely banging pork belly (£4.50) reminded me why this is one of my favourite dishes after some recent disappointments; crisp crackling, moist flesh and a hit of rosemary.

Salty and savoury manchego was served with soft and sweet quince jelly (£4)

Triple cooked bravas chips (£3.00) – basically a damn fine bowl of super crisp and fluffy chips served with breath destroying aioli and a light tomato salsa.

Chicken and Serrano ham croquettas (£3.95) were crispy flavour warheads filled with meat-studded béchamel sauce.

The large slices of garlic dotted throughout a dish of chestnut mushrooms with garlic and fino (£4.00) ensured that my breath, which had already been massacred by the aioli, didn’t recover until Sunday. It was a sacrifice worth making.

A heaving charcuterie board (£12.00) was laden with a selection of smoked and cured beef, 18 month aged grand reserve serrano ham and acorn fed Iberico chorizo, salami and pork loin.

A baked torta of tangy and creamy barros cheese (£4.95) was garnished with rosemary and served with a sweet tomato jam.  It wasn’t quite melted enough to achieve a fondue effect, but I still managed to pile the hot soft cheese and tomato jam onto the bread with gusto.

Such was the high standard of the food that only 2 dishes were good rather than excellent. Whilst cider poached chorizo was tender (£4.25) and the paprika loaded oil at the bottom of the dish was delicious soaked into some spare bread, the cider only came through in the form a delicate sweetness. I was hoping for a little more apple flavour.

Furthermore, whilst the flesh of some hake goujons (£4.50) was delightfully moist, I found the crisp batter to be a touch on the greasy side. Thankfully, some caper and lemon aioli cut through the grease perfectly.

Even though we were stuffed, it would have been rude not to finish the meal with a plate of churros (£3.95).  Warm and light cinnamon dusted doughnuts were served with a hot dark chocolate dip.

Whilst Mrs G settled up the bill, she enquired about a second branch of Bar 44 which is reported to be coming soon. I’d been hoping it was opening in Roath. Sadly, it’s going to be Penarth.  It’s just as well, as based on this experience, if Bar 44 was within walking distance from my house, I’d visit for a post-work snack everyday and never make it home. 

The details:
Address - Bar 44, 44c High Street, Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan, CF717AG
Telephone - 01446 776488

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Man v Food Night, North Star Cardiff

Remember, the food always wins.

Even though it’s been over 12 hours since I defeated the 45oz burger at North Star’s Man v Food night, I still feel pretty rough. In fact, I feel just as full as I did last night.

I’d happily never look at another burger again. Well, at least for a few days........

Here's a photographic log of last night’s events.

I’d been feeling anxious all day. I didn’t want to let myself down. More importantly, I didn’t want to let you down. I had a light breakfast – just the 2 slices of toast. I had a light lunch – just the one round of sandwiches.

I arrived at the North Star around 7:30pm to see my fellow competitors drinking pints of lager. Fools. I ordered a glass of tap water. Had they not learnt anything from watching hours of Man v Food?

We moved through to the dining area. A neighbouring table of 4 had just been attempting the challenge. The 2 who had attempted a heat challenge were in the bathroom. The 2 who had attempted a size challenge looked broken, massaging their food babies.

We’d pre-ordered during the day. 4 of us were attempting the 45oz burger challenge (£18), 1 person the extreme meat chilli (£10) and The Australian took on the epic calzone (£12).

After a nervous wait, the food arrived. Looks were exchanged and we set to work.

I was amazed by how tasty the giant burger was. Understandably, it was drier than its smaller equivalent, but it was well seasoned and the melted cheese, crispy smoked bacon and onion rings provided texture and taste contrast. I was feeling confident.

I cut the patty and the top of the bun in half to fashion a smaller burger, and set to work.

However, it soon became apparent the problem wasn’t going to be with finishing the patty. It was going to be finishing the bun. Whilst this home baked behemoth tasted decent, its texture wasn’t exactly light and fluffy. In fact, if you fed it to the ducks, they’d sink.

The Australian chipped away at his epic calzone. He didn’t say a word. He just ate and ate and ate. I guess he had something to prove after his country’s showing at the Olympics.

@Jimbothy was also making light work of his extreme meat chilli.  Despite the dish containing liberal amounts of Naga Bhut Jolokia (also known as the ghost pepper or the hottest chilli in the world) he kept a steady pace.  Perhaps it was his trusty sidekick, The White Russian, which helped.

Around the halfway mark, I began to hit the wall. Soon after, @andrewgriff and @jezwilliamson tapped out. Remember guys, it's the taking part that counts. Of the 4 original burger challengers, only myself and @chrisrhysw remained.

Conversation stopped. I could only think about the next mouthful. What had originally been a delicious burger was now my nemesis. I could barely look at it. Its smell and taste began to make me feel sick. The evolutionary instinct to be repulsed by dangerous foods was kicking in.

At this stage, Jim and The Australian finished their dishes.  Without any fanfare, they had beaten their food. Heroes. I however, was milking it for everything it was worth.

It wasn’t long before @chrisrhysw threw in the towel. He’d eaten ¾ of his burger and ½ of his bun. However, it was too much for him.

I was feeling really ill. I wanted to stop. But I couldn’t. Team GB wouldn’t let me. They’d inspired a generation. That generation was me.

I was no longer focusing on each mouthful. I was concentrating on each chew, each muscle contraction. I was getting there, I was trading blows with food punch for punch and I was winning.

An hour after I’d begun, I was nearly down to my final few mouthfuls.

And then……… was done.

I was presented with my certificate and I received the adulation of my inner-self.

Did I enjoy it? No.

Would I recommend it? No

Did it do my body long term damage? Perhaps

Am I glad I did it? Yes

I’d beaten food. For now….

The Details:
Every Wednesday night is Man v Food night
Address - The North Star, 131 North Road, Cardiff, CF14 3AE
Telephone - 029 2062 1736

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Social, Parc Thistle Hotel, Cardiff Restaurant Review

Since Martin Blunos abdicated his throne at The Crown Social nearly a year ago, the de-crowned and rebranded The Social has kept a low profile.  

‘New’ head Chef Iain Inman’s CV includes stints at Chez Bruce and The Square. Whilst he’s ditched the small plates, the concept is still informal fine dining. Starters weigh in around the £6.50 mark, mains £18 and desserts £7. We were dining using a Travelzoo voucher nearing its expiry date, giving us 3 courses each and a glass of prosecco for £39.

A bread board of good wholemeal, average foccacia and slightly dry sodabread kept us occupied whilst we made our selections from the menu.

To start, I ordered the leek and bacon pasty (£7). What turned up wouldn’t have looked out of place behind the counter at my local Gregg’s. However, if I could buy a pasty this good for 99p, I’d need a winch to get me out of bed in the morning. Packed full of finely diced salty bacon and creamy leeks, its richness was balanced by a smear of white onion puree. A little pile of radish slaw tasted predominantly of melted butter but added some texture to the plate.

Mrs G’s herb gnocchi (£6.50) with swede fondant looked beautiful and tasted just as good. The soft herb gnocchi and sweet swede fondant were complimented well by parmesan shavings, a scattering of girole mushrooms and a smear of the same white onion puree which accompanied my pasty.

For main I ordered the ribeye of Usk Valley beef (£20) with red wine jus.  Even though it was tender, it lacked flavour and was served medium-well done; despite following the recommendation to order it medium–rare. Underneath the meat sat an incongruous mix of slightly underdone French beans, dried tomatoes, and sautéed mushrooms.

Whilst these components disappointed, a little pot of triple cooked chips (£2.95) were categorically the best I have ever eaten in Cardiff. Triple cooked, they were supremely crispy with a staggeringly fluffy interior. I could happily have spent all eternity dipping them in the meaty red wine jus.

Mrs G’s main of deeply flavoured guinea fowl had bobby dazzler written all over it. It was served with some excellent potato dauphinoise, fresh summer vegetables and a heavy hitting meat jus. The only flaw on the plate was a slightly dry yet still flavourful croquette made from the shredded guinea fowl leg meat.

After 2 courses it was 2-0 to Mrs G. And, by the end of dessert, she’d completed her hat trick.

Her dessert of raspberry macaroons, raspberry sorbet and liquorice cream was spot on. The macaroons’ crisp exteriors gave way to a soft and slightly chewy centre. A raspberry sorbet was as smooth as Usain Bolt’s pre-race chat up lines. The final element on the plate, a delicate liquorice cream, added a clever dimension to the dish.

My dessert, a contemporary take on rhubarb crumble and elderflower fool didn’t live up to the memories of two of my favourite old school puds. Soft poached rhubarb was far too tart and it masked the flavour of the subtly delicious gooseberry and elderflower fool. Lastly, a scattering of crumble pieces lacked the golden brown top and fruit soaked base achieved by baking it with the fruit.

I’m not quite sure what to make of The Social. Whilst we both agreed the service was excellent and Mrs G had a fantastic meal, I feel a little bit more on the fence. One thing is for certain.......that's the best pasty and chips I've had in Cardiff. 

The Details:

Address: Parc Thistle Hotel, Park Place, Cardiff, CF10 3UD
Telephone: 02920 785593

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Carluccio's, Cardiff Brunch Review

Carluccio’s wouldn’t be the first place I’d think of when heading out for a spot of brunch in Cardiff city centre. Saying that, there aren’t too many other places which spring to mind except for Barker’s, The Plan, umpteen hotel restaurants and the sordid lure of the McMuffin.

Last Saturday, we were nudged into visiting Carluccio’s by the availability of a voucher on O2 Priority Moments giving us our cheapest brunch free.

As we entered the restaurant, I resisted the temptation to pilfer one of the tasty looking baked goods.

Carluccio’s menu consists of the obvious brunch classics (croissants, muesli, fruit salad) with the odd token nod towards Italian ingredients.

Mrs G’s cappuccino (£2.25) was good and very strong.

I went a little off-piste and ordered a bicerin (£2.80). Essentially a DIY mocha; 3 jugs of strong espresso, single cream and thick drinking chocolate were brought for me to mix at the table. It was a bit of a novelty, but it tasted good and experimenting with different ratios of each component gave us some light entertainment whilst waiting for our cooked breakfasts.

Mrs G’s eggs Benedict (£7.65) were rather excellent. A couple of runny poached eggs, light zesty Hollandaise and a generous amount of roast ham were piled on top of toast.

My fry-up aka the colazione (£7.75) was good but less successful than the eggs Benedict. I chose poached eggs over fried or scrambled. Like the eggs, accompanying toast, fried mushrooms and grilled tomato were all bang-on. However, the meat component let the plate down. A little pile of grilled pancetta tasted like crispy smoked salt and lacked the pork hit of a few rashers of bacon. Equally, a sausage wouldn’t have gone amiss to balance out the dangerously high proportion of vegetarian items on the plate.

I’d definitely go back for brunch at Carluccio’s. Next time I’ll just have to purchase a few extra slices of ham from the deli counter on my way in.

The details:
Address - Carluccio’s, The Library, 16 Mill Lane, Cardiff, CF10 1FL
Telephone - 02920 232 630