Saturday, 27 July 2013

Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham restaurant review

My life has always revolved around food.  However, during my formative years my tastes weren’t so lavish.

My earliest childhood memory is growing cress in primary school. Of course, we then used it make egg sandwiches.

As a brattish 10 year old my mum often placated my tantrums with the promise of a Wimpy Bender-in-a-Bun.

And, as a naive 18 year old, a lads’ holiday to Faliraki was spent making excuses to leave the night club early so I could visit the kebab shop. 

However, it was only after meeting friends at university who hailed from London that I realised there was a universe beyond Gregg’s cheese savoury stotties.

A trip to Le Champignon Sauvage with these same friends nearly 10 years ago gave me one of my first experiences of the cooking techniques, flavour combinations and *extra* courses served at some of the country’s swankiest restaurants. Why had I only ever experienced starter, main course and dessert? Why had no one ever told me about canapés, amuse bouches, pre-starters, pre-desserts and petit-fours?

Last week, Mrs G and I finally returned to Cheltenham to revisit Le Champignon Sauvage.

David Everitt-Matthias, chef-patron of Le Chamignon Sauvage, is a breath of fresh air in the age of the celebrity-chef. Having never missed a service in over 25 years, he’s amassed a collection of accolades including 2 Michelin stars and a Good Food Guide score of 8/10.

And, with his wife Helen Everitt-Matthias, overseeing front of house with an air of warmth, humour and passion, Le Champignon Sauvage is a place of pilgrimage for many foodies in the UK.

As is par for the course, Mrs G and I ordered the tasting menu, the Menu Gourmand, at £85 for 9 courses. 

We also picked an unremarkable bottle of house Viognier (£27), lacking the expected floral notes, from the extensive and well priced wine list.

A trio of canapés would have impressed individually but as a trio they knocked the ball out of the park – a cube of parmesan mousse coated in a smokey chorizo powder, a warm sweetcorn & bacon muffin and crackers served with a basil & goats cheese mousse were all faultless. 

An amuse bouche of a light salt cod mousse hidden beneath a layer of epically fresh gazpacho was the perfect opener to this summer eve's blowout.

Le Champignon Sauvage’s famous bacon brioche was just as memorable as the last time I visited.

Dexter beef tartare and an unctuous tranche of corned beef were accompanied by texture balancing croutons and richness moderating wasabi cream, pickled shimeji mushrooms and onions. The only criticism - the dexter beef used in the tartare was a little lacking in flavour.

Perfectly caramelised hand dived scallops were accompanied by blobs of mizo glaze, sesame puree and the ultimate sesame snap. This was a triumph of oriental flavour combinations.

Like our recent trip to The Square, the best dish of the meal was the oft-underrated mackerel. Meaty fish fillets were accompanied by a gayette (mini burger) of pig’s trotter and whelks, crunchy seeds, ribbons of cleansing pickled mooli and cardamom infused yoghurt.

Perhaps the richest dish of the evening was surprisingly almost entirely vegetarian – tender, earthy heritage potatoes were combined with delicate buffalo milk curd, sweet caramelised onion puree and a couple of slices of turkey prosciutto. This was another sublime dish.

In contrast the meat course, a dish of roasted wood pigeon, felt at odds with the season. In spite of this, it was still completely frigging lush. Blushing pink pigeon, roasted and pureed parsnips, a burly black pudding puree, meaty jus, caramelised fig and crisp mixed seeds were all faultless.

Pre-dessert was a light & creamy gooseberry fool sprinkled with a spiced biscuit crumb.

Continuing apace, dessert number #1 was a trio niftily balanced flavours – a fragrant cylinder of bergamot parfait, gently potent liquorice cream and intense orange jelly.

The final dessert was another standout in the evening’s stellar line-up.  Salty chicory mousse, reminiscent of the Camp coffee I used to drink at my grandparent’s in my early childhood, sat atop a layer of vanilla cream cheese and a soft biscuit base. It was paired with a refreshing yet rich in equal measure bitter chocolate sorbet.

One of the lasting memories of my previous visit to the Champion Sausage was receiving the wisdom that ordering tea or coffee in a Michelin starred restaurant is essential.  

And so, a plate of petit fours was brought forth...

Ethereally light syrup sponge, a mini battenburg, coconut and almond macaroons, chocolate toffee and the ultimate chocolate brownie were some of the picks – I really could go on.

Our meal at Le Champignon Sauvage was gobsmackingly brilliant and its status as one of the focal points of UK gastronomy is without doubt justified. In fact, it’s a bloody delight to know there’s somewhere this fantastic an hour and a half’s drive from Cardiff. 

The details:

Address - 24-26, Suffolk Road, Cheltenham, GL50 2AQ
Telephone - 01242 573449

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Gutsy Goose, Crwys Road, Cardiff restaurant review

This heat wave is seriously messing with my eating habits.

No longer am I craving meat and 2 veg, chocolate, chicken tikka masala or spring rolls.

Instead it’s all about Soleros, Cornettos, Magnums, takeaway sushi and unnaturally large portions of charcoal coated meat.

On one of last week’s swelteringly hot evenings, we ditched the salad and headed to one of Crwys Road’s newest openings -The Gutsy Goose.

The Gutsy Goose has the kind of crowd pleasing, all day menu which is perfect for a neighbourhood restaurant. Anywhere that serves eggs Benedict and American style pancakes for brunch, fish finger sandwiches, burgers and pie and chips for lunch, and pork belly and steak for dinner is ok in my book.

Service was friendly, if a little nervy, and this manifested itself in an incorrect starter being served (thankfully deducted off the bill) and the waiter subsequently checking all our main course orders were correct.  Furthermore, empty drinks glasses weren’t cleared throughout the meal. Both these oversights were annoying, but perhaps understandable, as we were part of a large group of 12.

A pre-dinner Mojito (£6) was pretty lame – a lack of sugar and a meagre amount of mint meant it tasted almost exclusively of rum and soda. My freshly squeezed orange juice (£2.50) in contrast was lush. 

A complimentary amuse bouche was a nice gesture. However, the fresh Mediterranean flavours of the mini bruschetta were masked by the presence of a fiery chilli jam and an intense balsamic reduction.

Things picked up with starters.

Goose liver pate (£5) was soft and smooth: sour cherry compote balanced the richness of the meat.

Warm scallops and smoked bacon (£7) were unexpectedly complimented by a scattering of tangy pomegranate pearls.

A tasty “smoked fishcake” (£5) had a crisp exterior and an un-stodgy texture. However, the predominant flavour was smoky chorizo and not the unnamed fish, which I’m guessing was salmon. An accompanying runny yolked poached egg and rich hollandaise were both well executed.

For main, Mrs G ordered the rib eye steak (£13). Whilst it was cooked a perfect medium rare and the accompanying béarnaise and fries were on the nail, the steak itself was disappointingly lacking in flavour – perhaps unsurprising for its price and generous size.

I ordered beer battered fish (£8). Light, grease free batter, flaky white fish and crisp fries were all praiseworthy. A pot of tartare sauce, however, had the pungent vinegariness of shop bought stuff.

Tender pork belly with smooth creamed potato and richness piercing, slightly sharp cider jus (£11.50) was described as very good.

It goes without saying we ordered desserts.  

Sticky toffee pudding (£4.50) actually turned out to be a syrup sponge. However, it was no worse off for its identity crisis. Light, moist and syrupy, the excellent sponge was balanced by an enjoyably tart smear of raspberry coulis and a scoop of run-of-the-mill vanilla ice cream.

Mrs G’s white chocolate and raspberry Eton mess (£4.50) did everything well too – light whipped cream, slightly sharp raspberries, creamy white chocolate and crisp meringue pieces all combined effectively.

However, the cheesecake of the day, a caramelised orange variety, (£4.50) was crying out for the presence of its headline flavour. The crisp biscuit base and sweetened cream cheese topping were all that could be discerned.

Stuffed and suffering from the meat / summer sweats, there was only one logical conclusion to the meal... a complimentary round of limoncello.

On the whole, our meal at Gutsy Goose was good, and there’s a load on the menu to make me want to go back. It’s just a shame that some overwrought presentation of the food (wooden boards really aren't as good as plates and smears are just a little bit Masterchef final) and slightly patchy service let things down a bit.

The details:

Address - 
145 Crwys Road, Cardiff, CF24 4NH
Telephone - 029 2022 8523

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Square, Mayfair, London review

A couple of weeks ago Mrs G and I went for lunch at The Square with Gourmet Gilly and his fiancé. We used their engagement and a joint birthday celebration to justify advancing to Mayfair.

Firstly, a few key facts about The Square - Chef-patron Phil Howard has held 2 Michelin stars since 1998, he cooked the winning fish course on Great British Menu 2012, and Mrs G really fancies him.

As with most Michelin gaffs, a set lunch at The Square is by far the best value way to eat in what would otherwise be eye watering luxury. The Square’s 3 course set lunch will set you back £40 compared to their £90 3 course a la carte £90 and their £115 tasting menu. If you ferret around in the lengthy wine list there are also a few sub £30 bottles to be found as well. We ordered a bottle of a grapefruity Equilibrio Coastal Sauvignon Blanc from Chile (£28).

The laid back professionalism of The Square’s serving team and the dining room’s unstuffy atmosphere are worth a mention too – it's a stark contrast to the identikit drones and hushed library whispers of many fine dining establishments.

Onto the nosh...

An amuse bouche of bocconcini mozzarella with olive, capers, romero peppers and white balsamic was surprisingly average. Fried breadcrumbs, red pepper and caper were the predominant flavours, somewhat masking the delicate creaminess of the mozzarella.

Warm wholemeal and white rolls were faultless.

Mrs G started with an heirloom tomato salad with sheep’s curd. The fresh, nuanced flavours of the different tomatoes and light creamy curd were a perfect match. However, Mrs G had food envy...

My warm salad of mackerel was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. Meaty mackerel fillets, lightly chargrilled potatoes, sea-like oyster cream, moreish mussel beignets, salty samphire, clean tasting mackerel tartare and soft razor clams. This was an utterly amazing dish which deftly balanced a multitude of flavours.

In a really boring turn of events, we all ordered the same main course – flavour packed roast Cornish red chicken. The combination of unctuous brown meat, slightly too firm breast and a chicken filled raviolo meant protein dominated the plate. Accompaniments comprised of crispy diced hazelnuts, a meaty truffle infused sauce and a smear of creamy potato(?) puree. The best thing on the plate, however, was a piece of chargrilled lettuce with a bobby dazzlingly complex flavour.

For pud I ordered a superb dark chocolate fondant accompanied by a light milk ice cream.  The fondant was rich but not too sweet and the oozing centre sheltered the hidden crackle of popping candy.

Mrs G’s apricot and almond tarte fine with a subtle camomile ice cream was first-rate too – thin crisp pastry and caramelised apricots combined effectively. However, the portion size was teeny weeny.

I’ll be daydreaming about The Square’s cheese trolley for months to come. 

Gourmet Gilly’s knockout selection (£10.00 Supplement or £15.00 as an extra course) included something epically socky and a couple of excellent blues. Homemade oatcakes and sultana chutney sealed the deal.

Accompanying the bill was some excellent, seriously chewy nougat packed with crisp nuts.

We had an excellent meal at The Square. However, whilst most of the dishes were stellar, a couple felt a little conservative. In spite of this, The Square is a pretty darn lovely place to have a relaxed lunch after a busy morning shopping for a new Bentley or a Temperley dress..  

The details:

Address - 6-10 Bruton Street, Mayfair, London, W1J 6PU
Telephone - 020 7495 7100

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Laguna, Park Plaza, Cardiff - Afternoon tea review

Birthday afternoon tea with Mrs G and the mother in law is fast becoming an annual ritual.

In fact, it’s pretty much the only day of the year I eat a proper afternoon tea. The reason being, it messes with my strict 3 meal a day regime.

I mean, what are you supposed to do with a meal in the middle of the afternoon?

Miss lunch or dinner to make room for all those cake and sandwiches?

Add in a fourth meal to my already calorific diet?

You can see my conundrum...

Last year we visited the charming Pettigrew Tea Rooms in Bute Park. This year was the turn of Laguna at the Park Plaza hotel.

Served 1-6pm daily, £15 buys you an afternoon tea with a choice of speciality tea or coffee. £25 will add in a glass of Veuve Clicquot rose champagne.

Sandwiches were made with fresh, crust-trimmed bread and a good selection of fillings – smoked salmon, egg mayo, ham & mustard and cucumber, dill & cream cheese. All the fillings, however, were meagre in quantity.

Scones & Welsh cakes were excellent. Warm, fresh and accompanied by generous dollops of clotted cream and jam.

The cake selection was also on the nail. A fruit tart made with crisp pastry, vanilla custard, fresh berries and kiwi fruit was the pick of the bunch. Enjoyably chewy mini meringues could have done with little more of their delicious, sharp lemony filling. Lastly, a mini custard slice and a cream topped chocolate mousse were both delicious.

Other than the stingy sandwich fillings, there were a couple of other niggles. Firstly, whilst the pot of English breakfast tea I ordered was perfectly decent, it wasn’t a patch on the excellent loose leaf teas on offer at Pettigrew Tea Rooms or Waterloo Tea Gardens.  

Secondly, service was seriously patchy. In spite of the dining room being largely empty, once our tea had been served we were pretty much forgotten. As a result, it was a struggle to catch anyone’s attention to order additional drinks.

Overall, we really enjoyed afternoon tea at Laguna. I’d definitely go back if I ate afternoon tea more than once a year...

The details: 
Address: Park Plaza Hotel, Greyfriars Road, Cardiff, CF10 3AL
Telephone: 02920 111 103

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Spice Berry, Indian restaurant, Cardiff City Centre review

Anand George’s influence on Indian cuisine in Cardiff cannot be underestimated.

His former restaurant, the excellent Mint & Mustard, still has many dishes on the menu from the time when he was head chef; the Chocomosa and the Tiffin Cup winning sea bass for starters.

At his current restaurant, Purple Poppadom, he’s refined his concept of “nouvelle Indian cuisine” even further and raised the bar once again for Indian food in Cardiff.

His style can also be experienced at a third restaurant and this brings me to today’s review...

Spice Berry has Chef SundaraMoorty Krishnasamy at the helm. Krishnasamy has worked at both at Mint & Mustard and Purple Poppadom and unsurprisingly, the result is a remarkably similar dining experience to both.

I’m certainly not complaining - it means the City Centre now has an awesome curry house and another independent restaurant to disrupt the chain dominance.  

I’ll get the minor criticisms out of the way first so I can bang on about how much I enjoyed last night’s meal.

Firstly, Spice Berry’s Caroline Street location above a kebab shop isn’t the first place you’d think of for a decent meal out. However, one taste of Spice Berry’s food and Chippy alley is quickly forgotten.

Secondly, pre-dinner poppadoms (£2.50) were disappointingly lacking crispness. In contrast, a chutney selection comprised of potent lemon, delicate mint & ever present mango was on the nail.

To start, I ordered the Spice Berry veggie trio (£5). Soft, creamy, saffron marinated Tandoori Paneer and a crisp Dahi Chat with a sour tamarind & creamy yoghurt filling were both frigging lush. A potato and lentil Navadhaniya patty, spiced with ginger and coriander, would have benefited from a slightly crisper exterior.

Mrs G ordered the Chicken Tikka (£5.90) - three tender pieces of delicately spiced chicken.

A Spice Berry non veg trio (£7), consisting of a chicken samosa, sheek kebab and chicken tikka, was also highly rated.

For mains I went for the Lamb Shank (£11.50). The tender and well proportioned shank was splendidly spiced. It was accompanied by a medium hot creamy curry sauce and finely diced potatoes tempered with mustard seed and aromatic curry leaf.

Mrs G’s Paneer Makhani (£8) was also top notch. Soft cheese was bathed in a rich, creamy, mildly spiced tomato based curry sauce.

A Kerala Kozhi Curry (£8.75), a traditional Keralan chicken curry, was heady with coconut and fragrant curry leaf.

Saffron pilau rice (£3.75) was light and aromatic.

Raitha (£2.25) with cucumber and red onion was declared the best Mrs G had ever eaten.

A soft Keema naan (£2.50) was filled with a red and green pepper flecked spiced lamb and chicken patty.

Dessert was the most déjà vu inducing course of the evening...

I ordered the Chef’s dessert platter (£6.50). Tandoori pineapple flavoured with honey and saffron, a textbook fragrant mango crème brulee and a Choc n Roll (essentially a cylindrical chocomosa) were all bloody lovely and nigh on identical to those served at Purple Poppadom and Mint & Mustard.

Spice Berry is an ace restaurant and a welcome addition to the City Centre. The food they serve is refined, interestingly spiced and prettily plated. 

Next time I’m in the mood for some Indian food on Caroline Street it’s reassuring to know my options now extend beyond chicken curry off the bone with chips from Dorothy's.

The details:
Address – Spice Berry, 30 – 32 Caroline Street, Cardiff, CF10 1FF
Telephone – 02920 099 199