Friday, 30 September 2011

Bryan Webb Guest Chef Dinner, Ffresh restaurant Cardiff review

It’s 24 hours since the latest guest chef night at Ffresh in the Millennium Centre and I’m still feeling full.  For last night, the meal cooked by Bryan Webb was gargantuan; it was epic; it was a mahoosive behemoth of a feast.

@BryanWWebb and @Dpmumbles, Commercial Director of the Millennium Centre giving a pre-dinner chat
Having enjoyed the previous guest chef night at the Millennium Centre immensely, Mrs G’s birthday was the perfect excuse to book tickets for this next event. Bryan Webb’s Michelin starred Tyddyn Llan is the second most highly rated restaurant in Wales according to this year’s Good Food Guide and I've been planning a pilgrimage to his Denbighshire based establishment for a good while. Bryan’s food is simple to look at on the plate but his understated presentation belies the skills of a master of classical cooking techniques. What’s more you can tell this Welshman is someone who is very proud of his heritage. A number of the dishes we ate during the evening were traditional classics which had been elevated to the levels of haute gastronomy.

Click the menu if you want to see a bigger version of the menu
Having caught a glimpse of the menu a few weeks ago, I’ve been salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs ever since. The evening had the same format as the Bryn William’s evening. £45 buys you one of the best value Michelin starred standard meals in the UK. Canapes, 4 courses, coffee & petit fours and not forgetting 5 glasses of quality wine supplied by Cardiff based Viader Vinters were all included in the price. It is insanely good value. 

We took our seats in the bar area of Ffresh and quaffed a few glasses of the rather fantastic Bryn Ceiliog 2010 from the famous Vineyards of Leckwith in the Vale of Glamorgan! The light and clean floral notes were just as refreshing a bottle of ice cold Evian.

Shortly after plonking ourselves in a cosy booth we were met with a procession of canapés that kept on coming.... and coming.

A bowl of crispy laverbread was reminiscent of Chinese crispy seaweed from the local takeaway but had a more intense flavour of the sea. I demolished a bowl almost singlehandedly and each time it was magically replenished. A bowl of cockle popcorn was as moreish as its inspiration. Pleasantly crisp and with a mild shellfish taste it was however a little bland...a bit like popcorn really.

This would have been your lot of canapés in most places, but we hadn’t even got started. Shortly afterwards we were presented with a platter of jaw-droppingly good delights. These included a perfectly stringy & oozy Glamorgan sausage, an intensely woody smoked salmon roulade and most importantly a superbly good warm scotch quail egg. I could easily have eaten 10 of these and died a happy man. In fact I really need some more fresh scotch eggs in my life and fully intend to make this Guardian recipe.

Taking our seats in the dining room we nibbled on a rather good bread selection. Hazelnut and date bread and tomato bread were the highlights.

Starter – Vinaigrette of butter beans and Madgett’s Farm duck confit with anchoiade croutons – Well flavoured duck meat, silkily soft beans, crisp croutons with a delicious garlicky anchovy topping and a generous dousing of dressing all worked together in harmony. If I was being critical I would say the dressing was a little oily. However, as the olive oil was such good quality I didn’t mind having to mop it up with a couple of slices of bread. The starter was washed down with a lovely glass of the summer berry-like Bergerac Rose 2010.

Wild bass with laverbread beurre blanc - Moist meaty fish with perfectly crisp skin. The beurre blanc without seaweed was delicately sweet whilst the beurre blanc with seaweed was imbued with almost mushroom like notes. Excellent.

At this stage in the game I was beginning to get a little full so I began to think tactically. I reigned in my wine consumption in order to maximise available space in my stomach for solid foodstuffs.

Fillet of Welsh black beef with shallot and thyme puree - Sourced from an estate near Tyddyn Llan this was a top drawer piece of meat; melt in the mouth, well flavoured and cooked to perfection. Steak heaven. The accompanying fondant potato, wilted spinach and meat jus complemented the meat perfectly but I felt that the sweetness of the shallot and thyme puree was a little much. In addition, someone had been a bit trigger happy with the black pepper on Mrs G’s steak. I had to help her out by eating half of it for her. The things you do for love...

Blueberry crème brulee and sorbet – Just lush. Crisp caramel and a perfectly set cream flecked with little blue jewels of juice. The blueberry sorbet was just the kind of palette refresher needed after all the rich food I'd consumed.

Fit to bursting I was ready to give up but there was still time for a final curtain call. Somehow I managed to wash down some pretty ace petit fours with a cup of coffee. A little almond sponge dipped in chocolate was a delight whilst chocolate truffles were soft as a pillow & just as rich.

We had a wonderful evening in the capable hands of Bryan Webb and the incredibly friendly serving staff at Ffresh. In fact I’d probably go so far as to say this is the best meal I've ever eaten in Cardiff.  I can’t wait for the delights in store at the next guest night. Fortunately I only have to wait a couple of days as Monday sees the legendary Shaun Hill of the Walnut Tree cooking up a special feast for Ffresh’s 2nd birthday party. I’m not sure whether there are any tickets left but it would probably be worth contacting Ffresh if you’re interested.

 The details: Ffresh restaurant, Wales Millennium Centre, Bute Pl, Cardiff CF10 5AL Tel: 029 2063 6465, Web:

Monday, 26 September 2011

The Plan, Coffee Shop, Cardiff Review

I know next to diddly squat about coffee. I have a mug of PG tips for breakfast and if I’m in Starbucks then 9 times out of 10 I’ll just order a cuppa char as well. There are so many things that can go wrong with coffee that I just can’t be bothered. Either I’m repulsed by the bitter taste when the beans have been burnt. Failing that, the overwhelming strength of many cups make me gag on each mouthful like a shot of neat vodka. Or at the other extreme an overly milky latte doesn’t seem any more appealing than drinking half a litre of hot whole milk. Refreshing.  

On Saturday morning Mrs G and I needed a caffeine boost and a light bite to eat before engorging ourselves at The Great British Cheese Festival.

I’ve heard a number of good things about The Plan in the Morgan arcade. It’s been featured in The Independent 50 Best coffee shops in the UK; the head Barista was ranked 4th best in the UK Barista Championships and finally they’re Cardiff's only members of the third wave coffee movement.  All pretty strong accolades, especially if knew what third wave meant!

The 1st wave of coffee was when the consumption of instant coffee became very common.
The 2nd wave was when people began to enjoy speciality coffees such as lattes and cappuccinos.
The 3rd wave is all about viewing coffee as an an artisanal foodstuff (like wine) rather than as a commodity (like sugar).  This involves thinking more closely about varieties of beans, their growing region and their individual differences in flavour.

It all sounds a little poncey doesn’t it? However if this is the focus on detail required to produce a cup of coffee as good as The Plan’s then it’s most certainly worth it. For this the best cup of coffee I have ever had in Cardiff.

I opted for a large cafe latte (£2.50) which had a light smooth flavour, not a hint of bitterness, and just the right balance between coffee and milk. The swirl on the top of the froth looked pretty artistic too.
Mrs G’s cafetiere of Ethiopian Blend (£2.90) was even better. The tasting notes described this blend as “all about the sweetness and fruit” and it did exactly as it said on the tin. The coffee had a lovely natural sweetness to it and if I was being Oz Clarke-esque I’d definitely say I could pick out a hint of apricot. It was excellent.

The cafetiere menu - click to see it bigger
To go with our liquid refreshment I had a decent tea cake (£1.40) whilst Mrs G opted for a highly competent plate of buttery scrambled eggs and toast (£4.70).

Next time I’m looking for a cup of coffee in Cardiff, I definitely plan on going to The Plan- sorry that was too tempting.

The details: The Plan, 28-29 Morgan Arcade, Cardiff, CF10 1AF, Telephone - 029 2039 8764

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Las Vegas Epic 2011 - Eating out at the Aria, Las Vegas review

Whilst staying at The Aria we had the opportunity to sample a number of the different eateries. We restricted ourselves to the more casual options as our budget wouldn’t stretch to the exorbitant yet enticing Bar Masa.

Patisserie Jean Philippe - We snacked and ate breakfast at the delish Patisserie Jean Philippe. For breakfast we sampled some excellent bran muffins, cinnamon rolls and toasted ham and cheese croissants. Whilst at snack time I had a bonkers rich Chocolate Intense. It was probably a little too rich even for my sweet tooth. Mrs G had a super light & dainty key lime pie.

SkyBoxWe ate lunch on the last day of our trip at the Sky Box restaurant located next to the sports book. Sat with our suitcases next to us, there was nearly a tear in my eye by this point, such was the feeling that I didn’t want to go home. We shared a plate of sticky and spicy buffalo wings served with crudités and ranch dressing. My main of BBQ pork sliders however was a bit of a letdown; the meat lacked flavour and was over-reliant on the BBQ sauce in which it was slathered. In addition the mini-buns were far too dense. Mrs G rated highly her Cobb salad which included a mix of dressed tomato, avocado, bacon, egg, blue cheese, mixed leaves and olives.

Aria Buffet – We took in an early breakfast (to beat the massive queue which magically appears after 9am) at the Aria Buffet for an inevitably hit and miss affair.  I took in a random first plate of kung po chicken, Singapore noodles and a pork bun which were all pretty good. Meanwhile eggs Benedict, French toast and hash browns were all well flavoured but lacked crisp freshness. The oatmeal and raisin cookie and blueberry muffin I ate for dessert were both excellent; I was very tempted to squirrel some away for the day ahead but Mrs G reminded me of the calorie laden epic which was in-store later in the day. 

The Details: 
ARIA Resort and Casino, 3730 Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV 89158

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Olive Tree Restaurant, Celtic Manor resort, Newport review

The Celtic Manor is one helluva ugly building. It looks like a 1990’s office complex crossed with the hotel from The Shining. It really is an imposing sight as you enter South Wales and make the drive along the M4 en route to Cardiff. Fortunately, the interior of the Celtic Manor is much better but there’s still a corporate luxury feel to the resort. It’s just a little bit Brittas Empire.

Aesthetics aside, we’ve had some really good times at the Celtic Manor. A few years ago we had an excellent meal at The Crown at the Celtic Manor. Equally, we’ve enjoyed lazing around in the Forum spa on a couple of occasions. So when Mrs G and I were given a voucher for Sunday lunch at The Olive Tree restaurant as a wedding present, I excitedly began to plan which pair of elasticated trousers I’d wear to deal with the quantity of food I intended on eating.
The Olive Tree restaurant
Our table reservation was for 1pm and serendipitously this was the time the restaurant opened. Therefore we were one of the first tables to be seated meaning we got first dibs on the food whilst it was all at its very freshest. For £32.50, The Olive Tree’s ALL YOU CAN EAT lunch buffet features a selection of cold meat & fish dishes for starters, the mandatory carvery with all the trimmings for mains and if you’ve still got room after this blowout, there’s a veritable treasure trove of desserts. Oh yeah tea, coffee and chocolates are included too. Finally, there’s a good selection of reasonably priced wines by the glass. I had a refreshing glass of Sauvignon Blanc (£4.50) whilst Mrs G had a smooth glass of Shiraz (£4.75).

Exercising a high level of restraint, I helped myself to a single plateful from the starters buffet. Highlights were an enjoyably retro prawn cocktail, a ham-packed (excuse the pun) ham hock terrine and some decent smoked salmon. Mrs G rated a broad bean salad and a potato salad but I didn’t bother because they didn’t have any meat or fish in them.

Barely coming up for breath we marched onwards with the main course. The friendly carver of meat was generous with the tranches of Usk valley beef, loin of pork and gammon he served. However as an extra safety net, his manager kept a watchful eye imploring him to carve more and more for each guest.  It certainly makes a change from the stingy wafer thin slices of meat I’m used to from the Toby Carvery.
The selection of sides
The meats were all excellent; well flavoured and tender. It was a bit of a shame the beef was served well done but fortunately it remained moist. The sides, with which I’d filled my plate to the point overflowing, were pretty fine. A cauliflower cheese was creamy and topped with an extravagant amount of gooey cheese, a slice of sausage meat was well herbed and the fresh vegetable selection was a reassuring vibrant green. However, there were a couple of average sides; parsnips were well seasoned but lacked crispness; roast potatoes were cooked but not particularly fluffy or crisp. Finally although the Yorkshire pudding was decent, it was a little dry, lacking the moist yet crisp battery goodness of the best examples.

Mrs G's plate of food. My plate was so full it was pretty unsightly.

I knew in my heart that by now I must be full but I didn’t want to give my stomach stretch receptors the chance to tell my brain. So once again we moved onto the next course in record time (we’d demolished 2 courses in about 40 minutes). Mrs G and I managed to cover off pretty much every dessert on offer (all in the name of research for the readers of Gourmet Gorro). There wasn’t a single bum note but the highlights on my part included a tarte au citron with perfectly crisp pastry and a sharp lemon filling; chocolate profiteroles packed to bursting with Chantilly cream and lastly a bowl of apple crumble with homemade custard. The apple was soft & sweet with a hint of cinnamon whilst the thin crumble topping was crisp and stodge free.  Mrs G's highlight was a well balanced retro mini trifle. I thought it was good but reckon it could have done with a bigger glug of sherry.

With my elasticated waist band now taut, we nursed cups of tea and coffee which came with some rather nice ginger truffles and fruit + nut chocolates. We really enjoyed our Sunday lunch at The Celtic Manor. Although £32.50 a head is a fair amount of moolah to spend on a Sunday lunch, based on the quality and the quantity of the food you can eat, I definitely think it’s worth it for a treat.

It’s worth noting the Olive Tree is a really family friendly place; people of all ages and generations were tucking into plates groaning with food. Family birthday parties, romantic couples, post wedding hangover lunches and old friends were all getting stuck in at the buffet. 

The details:
The Celtic Manor Resort, Coldra Woods, The Usk Valley, Newport, South Wales, NP18 1HQ 

Telephone: +44 (0)1633 413 000 

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Grove Narberth, Pembrokeshire Review

The Grove at Narberth
With friends visiting from the Big Smoke, we decided to get away to West Wales for the night. Managing to bag a last minute bargain (£150 for a 3 bedroom lodge) for one night at Bluestone (West Wales’ Center Parcs equivalent), we spent the day sheltering from the rain and reclaiming our youth whizzing down water slides at the Blue Lagoon water park located on site.  Having escaped the swimming pool before the start of the tweenies pool party, we dried ourselves off, put on our glad rags and made the short taxi journey to The Grove at Narberth (£13 fare from Bluestone) where Mrs G and I spent the first few nights of our honeymoon earlier this year.

Our lodge at Bluestone
One of our bedrooms at Bluestone
I’d noticed on Twitter earlier in the day that Duncan Barham, the talented head chef at The Grove, was going to be out the kitchen for the evening because he was cooking at the Chef’s Night Out charity dinner in Cardiff. As a result, I must admit I felt a slight sense of trepidation as to whether the food would reach the high standards set on our previous visit......

I’ll caveat what comes next by saying that overall we had a hugely enjoyable evening at The Grove. The new Garden room where we sat has a relaxed yet sophisticated atmosphere. We drank a couple of lovely, reasonably priced bottles of wine (I’m going to order some of the wondrously floral Alma Mora Viognier). Also the serving staff were exceptionally friendly, good humoured and professional. However, on this occasion, the food did fall short. It’s not that it wasn’t good, but in comparison to similar level establishments and our previous visit, there were a number of niggling things amiss.

An amuse of spiced onion soup was a little curry in a cup; an absolutely delightful way to start the meal.

Starters were a mixed affair. Mrs G’s twice baked pea and parmesan soufflé was crisp and light yet lacked flavour on both pea and parmesan fronts. My exciting confit of belly pork was a pork sledgehammer of flavour. Unfortunately the pastry of the accompanying black pudding sausage roll lacked crispness, as though it had been sitting under the pass for too long. The Bon Vivant Buju (he thought he should come up with a food blogging alter ego) described his home smoked salmon as very good but the cold broth on which it sat was rather too vinegary, distracting from the focus of the dish. Most successful was Lozza’s starter of Welsh goat's cheese salad with fennel; a perfect balance of textures and flavours.

Confit belly pork and black pudding
Welsh goat's cheese
Onto the mains and once again a fair few let downs. My lovely piece of halibut was overwhelmed by an incredibly powerful brown shrimp risotto, intensely smoky chargrilled aubergines and a black olive salsa. In addition the contrast of the cold salsa with the other hot components of the dish didn’t work for me. Meanwhile, Mrs G’s vampirishly rare venison lacked flavour and tenderness but the accompaniments, including a superb shin dumpling, were top drawer. There was a letdown too with Lozza and Buju’s lamb cutlets with lamb belly.  The lamb cutlets were delicious, soft and pink, but the lamb belly was a little too chewy. The Bon Vivant Buju noted that “in a reflection of the starter, the generally high standard of the dish was let down by one or two quite noticeable flaws”. 

Dessert however was the standout dish of the evening on my part. My carrot and walnut fondant was absolute genius. It was without a doubt the best carrot cake I have ever eaten (even though I do make these claims very lightly). The oozing middle of carroty walnutty goodness blew me away. Mrs G also had a delicious plate of Welsh cheeses and crackers. The let down on the dessert came from Lozza and Buju who plumped for the almond choux bun, praline cream and cherry puree (it was the standout dish from our honeymoon visit).  However on this occasion it didn’t quite hit the mark. As you can see from the photos the dish didn’t have the light refinement of our previous visit. The pastry veered towards the stodgy and left the Bon Vivant Buju's mind wandering off towards Beard Papa's Cream Puffs.

Carrot and walnut fondant - UNBELIEVABLY GOOD
Choux bun this time round - disappointing
Choux bun on honeymoon - A breath of fresh air
Reading back the review it all seems a little negative. However, we genuinely had a fantastic evening. Hopefully the errors we experienced were just a one off blip in quality. Otherwise, I’m not sure they’re quite ready for the Michelin star they certainly have the potential to get. 

The details: The Grove at Narberth,, The Grove, Molleston, Narberth, Pembrokeshire, Wales, SA67 8BX,  Tel: +44 (0)1834 860 915

If you enjoyed this post and your looking for other places to visit in West Wales then check out my honeymoon posts here, here and here

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Empire Indian Restaurant, Albany Road, Cardiff Review

Sometimes I question the point in reviewing generic high street curry houses. I mean they’re all much of a muchness aren’t they? Everyone has their own dish they order time and time again; most people are unlikely to deviate from their usual curry house due to proximity either to their home or local pub; a good proportion of the clientele have had a few pints and so their palette is perhaps less critical than it otherwise would be and lastly, there really isn’t much between the food served at one high street curry house and the next is there?

It’s with this last point that I disagree with the most. Whereas it would take me 4 pints to happily eat at New Himalaya on Wellfield Road, I’d contentedly eat at Empire with no alcoholic stomach lining. You see even  though the menu at Empire reads the same as every other high street curry house (I think their goal to bring Michelin starred Indian food to Cardiff is a little misguided), a curry at Empire is relatively speaking a fresh, ghee-lite experience.

My starter of onion bhaji was nice and crisp but I would have liked a little less batter and bit more onion. Meanwhile Mrs G’s lamb samosas were crisp and packed to the corners with spiced meat.

The mains brought the most interest to the evening.  My staple double meat curry entitled Chicken Gurka Masala was a well balanced mix of chicken tikka, yoghurt, ginger, coriander, minced lamb and spices. Meanwhile Mrs G’s Haryali Murgh Massala was a swamp green concoction of grilled chicken marinated with spinach, mint and coriander served in a creamy sauce. Even though the colour of the sauce was rather curious, the combination of the spinach with the different herbs was absolutely fabulous. Disappointingly the chicken was towards the dry end of the moisture spectrum.  The final standout dish of the evening was a saag paneer which combined moist creamy cubes of paneer cheese served with fresh, well spiced spinach. It goes without saying that the naans and rice dishes were good.
Chicken Gurka Masala
Haryali Murgh Masala
Saag Paneer
So all in all a highly enjoyable curry.  Empire’s dining room has a slightly more contemporary feel than the other curry houses in close vicinity. However, as a result of their popularity on a Friday & Saturday night, their efficiency of service can suffer.  This time we had no problems with waiting as we’d made the reckless move of sitting down to eat at 10:30pm. The downside of this was I was still busily digesting curry at 2am, slightly scuppering our early Saturday start for our trip to West Wales.

The details:
Empire, 157-159 Albany Road, Roath, Cardiff, CF24 3NT
Telephone: 029 2048 5757