Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Guilty Pleasure No 5 - Japanese Curry Sauce

I’m a lazy cook so I tend to look for dishes which I can make using as many ingredients from the kitchen cupboard and as minimal effort as possible. Ever since a trip to Japan in 2005 I’ve been obsessed with Japanese Curry Sauce. Dotted around the streets of Tokyo are little fast food joints which specialise in serving up variations of Japanese curry; curry sauce with rice, curry sauce with breaded pork cutlet, curry sauce with udon noodles etc. The rich, fatty, spiciness of the dish provided a welcome counterpoint to the clean, healthiness of the umpteen plates of sushi and bowls of ramen which I consumed on my travels. 

Thankfully, Japanese curry is a dish which I’ve been able to emulate with total ease and a vague semblance of authenticity ever since. On a biannual basis I stock up the larder with a few boxes of bricks of curry from the Japan Centre, Piccadilly Circus. According to Wikipedia (which I seem to pay far more reverence to than I really should), these instant packs of curry sauce are the most common method of consumption of this dish in Japanese homes.  It also explains that curry was first introduced to Japanese cuisine via the English (I guess this accounts for the fact it is more redolent of British chip shop curry sauce than anything resembling an authentic Indian curry.)

The lack of health credentials of Japanese curry are confirmed by a glance of the translated ingredients list on the back of pack; an Ezaki Glico brand sauce (9.4% market share in Japan according to Wikipedia) has a primary ingredient of beef fat whilst the S&B brand sauce (25.8% market share) cites the much villainised, trans-fat laden palm oil as the main ingredient. Other surprising ingredients include cabbage, hydrolysed protein from sardine & bonito, pumpkin, spinach & Japanese mountain yam.

Preparation of Japanese curry is a remarkably simple process; half a brick of sauce for 2, a glug of boiling water, and er that’s it really. Serve it with a breaded chicken fillet and rice for katsu curry or with some fried chicken, frozen peas and udon noodles for a curry udon. 

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Las Iguanas, Mexican Restaurant, Cardiff Bay Review

It was my birthday party last night and as I hadn’t eaten Mexican in ages and had been recommended the new Las Iguanas in Cardiff bay, my decision was made. As far as my experiences of Mexican food go, they run to a couple of visits to Wahaca (pretty authentic I think and fairly tasty) and countless visits to Chiquito’s and Taco Bell (totally unauthentic slop which I have a soft spot for it). Las Iguanas sits in a happy place closer to the former than the latter.

The interior of Las Iguanas has a really trendy favela chic kind of thing going on. Think moody lighting, reclaimed wood, eclectic fixtures and fittings and Latin American murals. It really gives the place some serious atmosphere to get you in the mood for a Mexican feast. 

We’d booked our table for 6:30pm on the basis that the cocktail special offers (2 for 1 on selected drinks) run until 7:30pm and we wanted to get as much booze for our buck as humanly possible. For reasons unknown (perhaps the first 2 pitchers of Cherry Fizz) we ended up ordering 6 pitchers of Cherry Fizz and 2 pitchers of Long Island Ice tea (there were only 6 people drinking). Cherry Fizz is a mix of cherry brandy, Plymouth gin, elderflower & lemonade with cranberry & lemon juices. It was reminiscent of an 18th birthday punch and basically tasted of cherries - eminently quaffable for the first 5 glasses but a little sweet beyond that dangerous point of no return.

The villain of the piece - Cherry Fizz

Our incredibly friendly and efficient server tipped us off when time was running out on the happy hour and the tapas special offers (3 starters for £13.20 and 5 starters for £22.00 before 7pm) so we got our food orders in swiftly. To start, we decided to mix and match, sharing a selection of starters and a taco sharing plate. Now I must caveat my review with an admission that before the starters were even served, my taste buds were already well and truly sullied by cherry fizz and owing to the fact it was my birthday party I was feeling in more of a celebratory than critical mood. However, I can say that the first course was very enjoyable without going into too much further detail. The taco sharing plate (£13.00) was really good fun consisting of a large platter with all the fixings for making your own tacos (soft flour tortillas, little pots of melted cheeses & salsa, a salad of onions, radishes & spring onions, sour cream & choice of toppings – we’d opted for Shredded beef, slow-braised in smoked chilli, Spiced shredded lamb and Spicy garlic & chipotle roast squash). Calamari (£5.20) were good and Lamb Empanadas (£5.20), mini pasties filled with slow-braised lamb, were reported to be excellent.

Taco Sharing Platter - Chiaroscuro for the Caravaggio fans
Chubby gambas - well cooked but the sauce was a little bland

A fine Calamari

Barbecue jerk chicken wings - tasty but my photographic reaction times were too slow to get the whole dish

Lamb Empanadas - Foreground

 Onto mains and once again as the amount of cherry fizz consumed increased, levels of criticality declined. My burrito filled with shredded beef and caramelised onion was enjoyable but ultimately flawed. The tortilla was too crisp making it pretty hard work, the filling was light on beef and the side salad was pretty unoriginal. In contrast some of the other mains were of a much higher standard. Mrs G’s chicken fajitas (£13.50) were excellent - beautifully seasoned chicken with tons of sizzling peppers and onions, and the usual sides were bang on. A sirloin steak was well flavoured and tender (£15.20) whilst churrasco fiasco (£13.50), rump steak kebabs, had an almost curry like quality to them due to the cumin laced marinade. 

Beef Burrito - You can see it's a little too crisp on the edges
Beef kebab - The food wasn't blurred, just the photo
Sirloin steak
Chicken fajtas
At this stage of the review I’ll digress to admitting that it probably hasn’t been since I had my birthday party at McDonalds when I was 8 years old that a restaurant has made me feel so special on my birthday as Las Iguanas did last night. Last week, I’d received an email with a voucher so that I could have a free main, our waitress offered to take photos of our group throughout the evening, I was brought balloons and also a mini chocolate brownie sundae with a little candle on top. Some might say this is slightly over the top for a nearly 30 year old male….but not in my book. All that was missing was a visit from the Hamburgler.

Birthday sundae
Macademia Cheesecake
Aztec chocolate brownie
Brazilian trifle
Onto desserts and by this point I was stuffed and drunk and therefore felt compelled to order something. Inexplicably I ordered a larger version of the free dessert I’d just eaten. It was good but not revelatory and this was the theme for most of the desserts. My chocolate brownie sundae consisted of warm pieces of cake, vanilla ice-cream, banana slices, chocolate sauce and cream. I’m sure I could taste some cinnamon which elevated the flavour of the dish but once again this might have been the cherry fizz addling my brain. Other desserts included an enjoyably boozy Brazilian trifle with guava jelly and cachaca (a Brazilian spirit), a fairly average spiced chocolate orange fudge cake and the pick of the bunch which was a really very good creamy cheesecake topped with moreish roasted macadamia nuts (“It was leaps and bounds ahead of the rest” to quote the bucketman Rhys). 

I had an immensely fun evening at Las Iguanas and I’m really keen to go back to taste more of the food they have to offer. If I steer clear of the cocktail menu then I’ll also pass a more critical eye over the food. 

The details: Las Iguanas, Unit 27, Ground Floor, Mermaid Quay, Cardiff, CF10 5BZ, Tel:029 2045 9165, Web: http://lasiguanas.co.uk

Guilty Pleasures No 4 - JA Pork Crunch, pork scratchings review

Design agencies stand up and take note of this packaging design
With an impending trip to Las Iguanas for some Mexican food for my birthday, I was reminded of a guilty pleasure that I’ve been intending to write about for ages…. JA Pork Crunch; the King of pork scratchings. 
As a frequent food blog trawler I’ve discovered a ton of blogs hyping up the pork scratchings at Thomasina Miers’ Wahaca mini-chain of Mexican restaurants. According to Foodycat "they are the best pork scratchings that you will find in a wide area".  and according to Adventures of a Foodie "If you haven't tasted Wahaca's homemade pork scratchings, you haven't lived"

Having sampled the Wahaca scratchings and also JA’s pork crunch I can confirm that Wahaca's offering are only the best in a wide area because there is no Homebargains in Covent Garden. You have also lived if you have eaten JA's pork crunch. And the best thing, JA’s pork crunch are available for 25p from your local Homebargains store. Each mouthful has the puffy, crunchy, light texture of quavers and a delicious flavour combination which melds pork, salt and MSG (Umami if I’m feeling pretentious). They are truly cliche worthy......oh go on then......they are pork scratchings like no other. It is worth a trip to Homebargains just to purchase a couple of bags but no doubt you’ll come out with a basketful of other things you don’t really needed (10 biscuit and raisin milkybars going out of date in a few weeks for 19p each anyone?). 

No they're not quavers, they're pork crunch; also, a Cat Kidston themed backdrop and unnecessarily crumbed tablecloth.

As a branding geek, the other thing I love about JA Pork crunch is their packaging design. There aren’t many other products available on the supermarket shelf that look like they've been designed on powerpoint. I can just picture Farmer JA designing the packaging on his PC having decided to launch his own range of scratching in order to sell off his excess pork fat (perhaps having been inspired by the Tyrell’s story or perhaps not). 

What else is there to say that I haven’t already said? Oh yes there’s miraculously only 0.98g of saturated fat in a packet and paradoxically you occasionally get a reassuringly soft bit of un-rendered fat in a mouthful.

The details: JA Pork Crunch, Location: Homebargains, Price: 25p

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Lorenza's Italian Restaurant, Cardiff Review

Update - Lorenza's has now closed
 I’ve finally succeeded in working my way through my Groupon stockpile. Last on the list was Lorenza’s Italian restaurant and as our voucher was due to expire in a couple of weeks, we decided we’d celebrate Tuesday night with a meal out. 

Lorenza’s fits the description of a local Italian restaurant perfectly. However it’s more tastefully decorated than some of the more dated joints I’ve come across in Cardiff and their menu of pizza, pastas, carne and pesci specials, is that little bit more exciting than the average. For instance pastas include paccheri (tube shaped pasta) served with homemade sausage, porcini mushrooms and cream. Service is warm and friendly if slightly on the laidback side. We waited a little bit longer than I would have liked between starters and mains, especially when the restaurant was fairly quiet. 

Last time we dined at Lorenza’s we both ate a really good fillet steak with red wine sauce and so tonight we decided we’d explore the menu more widely. For starters I opted for funghi trifolati (£4.75); mushrooms cooked with garlic, parsley and a hint of chilli served on toasted bread. This was really quite disappointing. The mushrooms were no different to those I would expect to be served with a fry up at a greasy spoon café. There was no real taste of garlic, chilli or parsley. Mrs G opted for a very simple yet tasty bruschetta romana (£3.45); toasted bread with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, oregano & anchovies.  Nice and fresh tasting in comparison to my dish this was a very pleasant, light way to start the meal. 

All the fried mushrooms were missing was an egg and a slice of black pudding
Bruschetta - tastes as appears
Onto mains and this is where the chef of Lorenza’s showed his cooking ability. I opted for a zuppa di pesce (£14.95). I’ve been looking for a decent iteration of this dish to live up to my favourite version from our local Italian when we lived in Chester. Lorenza’s version gave it a pretty good run for its money. Stacks of beautifully cooked pieces of gurnard, mussels and king prawns served in a light and fresh tasting tomato soup with whole cherry tomatoes, celery and carrot. It was seasoned well with parsley, basil and a hint of chilli. The portion was epic and the small accompanying fingers of lovely, crispy garlic toasts were all that was necessary. The other half opted for a crab risotto (£11.95). Served rather prettily in a scallop shell with a twirl of leek on top, this dish was also top notch. Perfectly cooked risotto, not too claggy, not too wet, this dish had tons of crab taste and just the right hint of chilli to cut through the richness of the dish. Another real winner. 

A super zuppe
Crab risotto - I've never seen leek like it before
Suitably stuffed, we paid the bill and headed home (via KFC for a mini Krushem). We seriously enjoyed our main courses and agree that we’d pay full price for both of these dishes. However, what with the half price Groupon deal in addition, this was remarkably good value for money. 

Ordinarily, prices on the menu at Lorenza’s are fairly reasonable and they have some other very good value special offers to tempt you in – during midweek 2 courses and a glass of wine will set you back £9.95 and they’re also running their own Groupon style voucher scheme where you can purchase a voucher for £40 of food for £20 from the restaurant directly. 

The details: 153-157 Crwys Road, Cardiff, South Glamorgan, CF24 4NH, 029 2023 2261

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

GourmetGorro in Brief - Jinuk Indian Restaurant, Canton, Cardiff Review - A korma in chef's special clothing

The bright lights of Jinuk - "Restaurant of the Year 2003"
Update - Jinuk has now closed and has been replaced by Purple Poppadom

This latest post is more of a fable than a review. It’s not that I’m going to neglect to mention the quality of the food on offer at Jinuk, the light and contemporary feel of the décor or even the friendly and efficient service which accompanied our meal. However, there is a more important message: Beware the Korma in Chef’s special clothing. 

It was a couple of weeks back when a group of friends and I happened to find ourselves looking for a curry to eat at 11pm on a Sunday evening. We’d spent the rest of the day eating a gargantuan Dim Sum lunch at The Happy Gathering and drinking in The Cricketers and The Cayo. Remarkably, by the time 10pm had come around, lunch had begun to settle and we were ready to eat curry. So off we went to The Cinnamon Tree. Unfortunately, this was the meal that never was and so I have a different story to tell. We were turned away with the shake of a head and the offer of a takeaway. So plan B it was: The Jinuk. 

It's a bright and spacious dining area with a contemporary feel.

Located on Cowbridge Road East, the exterior of Jinuk belies the bright, spacious and contemporary restaurant located at the top of a flight of stairs.  We were seated quickly, menus were brought and I began the deliberation process. I was in the mood for my usual dual protein curry combination: chicken and lamb served in one dish. However, something else caught my eye, another dish which offered two types of protein in one. There it was, under the Tandoori and Marinated section, The Cocktail Bahar; the dish that promised to offer chicken and homemade paneer in one dish. It sounded amazing …….

Starters were brought swiftly and included a delicious Shami Kebab – well spiced lamb wrapped in a light omelette, and an enjoyable Lamb Tikka. 

Lamb kebab and egg...a truly classic flavour combination

An enjoyable lamb tikka
My appetite suitably whetted, the sense of anticipation for my main dish was beginning to rise. Out was brought a procession of dishes of a reassuringly familiar shade of brown. Last to come was the main event…The Cocktail Bahar….and it had an unnervingly familiar yellowy colour to it. A moment of realisation hit me. Shit. I’d ordered a korma. I thought back to the description of my dish on the menu: Chicken and homemade curd paneer cooked in a thick and creamy sauce. Damn my selective attention. I’d been suckered in by the by the first part of the description and failed to pay due care and attention to the second part of the sentence.  It tasted pleasant enough, and brought flooding back memories of when I used to order a korma or a passanda when I was eight and hadn’t yet progressed onto the ‘spicy’ chicken tikka massala. However, I tried my friends’ mains and had a glimpse of what I was missing out on.

The standout dish was a Begun Bahar which comprised of Chicken and aubergines in a well spiced sauce of minced meat, green chilli and coriander amongst other things. This is what I should have ordered but it was not to be.
Oh no..it looks like a Korma and it tastes like a Korma...it's a Cocktail Bahar
A reassuringly brown and spicy Begun Bahar

A good mushroom pilau

A good keema naan

I wanted to order this for dessert but unfortunately it was off the menu

I enjoyed my meal at the Jinuk and would definitely consider a return visit if in the area (after trying the other places on my long to do list in the Canton/Pontcanna area.) However, I know for next time to look more carefully beyond the surface….Beware the korma in chef’s special clothing.

The details: Jinuk, 185a Cowbridge Road East, Canton, CF11 9AJ, Telephone: 029 2038 7778

Monday, 2 May 2011

Happy Gathering, Cardiff Chinese Restaurant Review

Happy Gathering is somewhat of a Cardiff institution. It seems to be a frequent favourite amongst some of my friends for Valentine’s Day, New Years Eve and other special occasions. It’s also received a fair amount of national press coverage in The Independent and The Times who both regard it as Cardiff’s finest Chinese restaurant. As a result of all the hype I’ve been gagging to visit ever since moving to Cardiff nearly two years ago. 

Fortunately for me one of my friends decided that she’d hold a dim sum banquet there for her birthday party on Sunday lunch. We rocked up at about 1pm to be met by a crowd of about 30 people milling around outside on the street and the same number waiting in the bar area. Thankfully, our reservation meant we were immediately shown to our table in the buzzing upstairs dining room; families and friends thronged the room all enjoying bamboo steamers full of dim sum. My anticipation levels were by now sky high; it must be popular for a reason right? 

The dim sum ordering experience was pretty fun; we were equipped with pens and little tick sheets to fill in. As everyone was starving (I’d missed breakfast to make room for the epic meal ahead) we all got a little tick happy and ended up ordering far too much. This was kindly pointed out by the manager before it was too late and he reduced our order accordingly.  

Service was initially pretty slow; it took a good while for drinks orders and the food order to be taken but must admit I wasn’t keeping track of the time due to my excitement levels and the hubbub of conversation. However, once the food order had been taken it wasn’t long before the dishes were brought out and they kept on coming and coming……

A lot of Dim Sum

Ribs in Chilli and Black beans (left) - I far prefer roast spare ribs to these steamed siblings, Sui Mai - Steamed pork and prawn dumplings (right)
Char sui pork buns - one of my faves
Deep fried squid - light and crisp = tasty
BBQ Pork Puff - Really good, light puff pastry filled with loads of pork
Crispy honey glazed king prawns form main menu (half eaten) -WOW
Singapore noodles - lightly curried vermicelli with prawns, chicken, egg etc - a very good example
House special rice - steamed rice with a menagerie of roasted meats, seafood and veg - one of the more average dishes
Prawn crackers, Roast spare ribs in barbeque sauce
Tripe - I couldn't stomach it myself but other people said it was delicious yet chewy (note it was one of the only dishes which wasn't finished)
Har Gau - stemed prawn dumplings or something similar (I am guessing)
Pan fried pork and leek buns (Sunday only) - V.good but a little on the greasy side
Prawn spring rolls - Packed full of prawns and greasefree - immense
Baked pork buns - the softest bread bun filled with char sui pork - Excellent
The necessary curry sauce (foreground), Roast pork cheung fun - rice noodle rolls filled with pork (background) - I love these but some people found them a little cloying
The aftermath

By the time we’d managed to work our way through our mountain of food (amazingly there were only a few pieces of tripe, intestine and cheong fun left), I was stuffed to bursting. I’ve eaten Dim Sum a couple of times in London and at Ba Orient in Cardiff Bay but can’t profess to being an expert on the ideal dumpling. I really enjoyed the food at Happy Gathering and I’ll really look forward to going back to eat dim sum and to dine from the main menu but I wouldn’t rate the quality as significantly better than any of my other previous experiences. However it’s the atmosphere at Happy Gathering that really sets it apart.

The Details
Food, drinks and tip came to £19 a head.
Dim Sum served daily until 6pm but certain specials are available only on a Sunday
Happy Gathering Chinese Restaurant 233, Cowbridge Rd East, Cardiff, CF11 9AL
Telephone: 029 2039 7531