Sunday, 30 October 2011

Cafe Madras, Indian restaurant & takeaway, Cardiff review

*Update - Cafe Madras has now closed and has been replaced by Madras in Wales*

Feeling “slightly” hungover, a takeaway curry was the only thing which could heal the pain. Mrs G suggested we tried Cafe Madras on City Road as she’d had food from there whilst in work a few months ago and rated it pretty highly.

Cafe Madras is the most recent addition to Cardiff’s pantheon of South Indian restaurants.  I’m a fan of Punitha’s and Mint & Mustard's food so was interested to see what Cafe madras could bring to the table.

As I didn’t have any cash and wasn’t feeling up to venturing outside, I decided to order through Everything seemed pretty straightforward until the website crashed out whilst taking payment and I had to go through the rigmarole again. Nearly a broken man (I was already on the edge before I even started), I managed to complete the order on the second attempt only to be met with the nail in the coffin that my order wouldn’t be delivered for a good 50 minutes.

Thankfully it arrived within half an hour. As I'm sure hundreds of cliched business bibles have said before, it's always better to under promise and over deliver.

What of the food? It was pretty good in general but some of the portion sizes were definitely on the stingy side.

From bottom left clockwise - Mutton Kotthu Parotta, Paneer Butter Masala, Yoghurt rice and Cauliflower Manchurian
Cauliflower Manchurian (£3.50) – Crisp battered pieces of cauliflower in a spicy, sweet & sour sauce. An Indo-chinese classic. However, the portion size was about half the size of the Punitha’s equivalent.

Mutton Kotthu Parotta (£4.75) – Shredded parotta (chewy flatbread) stir fried with pieces of mutton, peas, onion, egg, tomato and spices. Perfect hangover food and the portion size was decent too. It was well spiced and a little less greasy than the Punitha’s version but in comparison didn’t have the same curry leaf complexity  and quantity of meat.

Paneer Butter Masala (£3.99) – Soft pieces of Indian cottage cheese served in a creamy tomato massala with a good kick of chilli. Again the portion size and amount of paneer was a little underwhelming.

Yoghurt rice (£.275) –Described on the menu as “Rice well cooked & delicately mixed with yoghurt” and in the same section as other rice dishes served hot, I was a little narked to receive a dish of cold yoghurty rice pudding flecked with coriander and chilli. It was pleasant enough but didn’t quite fit into the meal I’d had in mind.

All in all a fairly decent meal but on this basis of this experience, my preferences still lie with Punitha’s. However, I won't pass final judgement until I've sampled some more of the rather tasty looking menu.

The Details:
Cafe Madras, 29 ,City Road. Cardiff. CF24 3BP

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Gregg's Moment, Newcastle Coffee Shop, Review

Gregg’s Moment is a new concept from Gregg’s the bakers. Supposedly it’s taken the Gregg’s brand and transplanted it into a sophisticated British coffee shop .They’ve drafted in highly regarded interior designer Philip Watts and have even had The Guardian bigging them up.

Despite all the fanfare, Gregg’s Moment is rubbish.

The simply designed exterior hoardings provide no hint of the supposed sophistication which lies in store. It’s just as well because the interior is equally disappointing. Somehow the solitary press photo on The Guardian website has managed to give the impression that Gregg’s Moment is pretty chic. In fact there’s very little save for the odd flying duck on the wall or occasional bowler hat light fitting that sets it apart from any other branch of Nerocostabucks.

But what of the coffee?

Ironically it took a Gregg’s eternity to get to the front of the queue to find out. When I finally reached the front I was given the happy news that the card machine wasn’t working. So off I went to get some cash. Finally when I’d placed my order it took an age for my drink to be served. Not a good start.

A litany of other things then hacked me off –

A)     I asked for a glass of tap water to go with my cup of coffee. I was informed they don’t serve tap water. I asked whether they had a tap and was met with a blank stare. Epic fail in my book. Certainly not as good as not as good as Nerocostabucks.
B)      The cup of coffee I drank tasted pretty acrid. Not as good as Nerocostabucks.
C)      The food they serve is largely overpriced. The secret to Gregg’s world takeover is their pricing. £2.95 for an 8cmx8cm chicken and chorizo ciabatta (using what looked like Gregg’s regular ingredients) would make most regular Gregg’s customers baulk (that includes me).

I’m never going back to Gregg’s Moment under any circumstances.......unless they start selling cheese savoury stotties. 

The details:
Greggs Moment, Northumberland St. Newcastle NE1 7PG

Guilty Pleasures No6 - Greggs the Bakery

People moan about the homogenisation of the high street and I’m often one of them. However I’m happy to make an exception for the Geordie bakery Greggs. After all I was weaned on their pastries.

Perhaps one day every other high street shop will sell low priced baked goods?

South Shields - Nobles Amusements also has a Greggs out back.....
 Perhaps one day all airports will provide the opportunity to pick up a pasty before check in?

Newcastle International Airport
Newcastle is a utopian paradise for lovers of the bargain baked-good. You can’t walk 200 metres in without stumbling across a branch of Greggs.

Greggs peddles junk food at stupidly cheap prices. However for some reason they don’t (yet) have the evil connotations of McDonalds or KFC. Perhaps it’s because they’re British and they mostly sell sandwiches instead of fried goods? In reality there’s very little difference between the Geordie Giant and their close relatives the American Fast Food Multinational. A Gregg’s chicken club baguette has 680 calories and 27 g of fat. In comparison the Big Mac has 490 calories and 24 g of fat and the KFC fillet burger has 460 calories and 18g of fat.

In spite of the obscenely calorific nature of some of Gregg’s food, people across the country still flock there for lunch on a daily basis.  Why? Is it the Geordie smile? Or is it down to the fact they’re cheap and tasty? There are very few lunch places where you can have a 3 course meal (in the loosest sense of the term) for around £2.50.

My dream guilty pleasure 3 course meal would be as follows:

Starter / Amouse Bouche / Appetiser – Sausage roll. Crisp pastry enrobes uniformly textured, well seasoned mechanically recovered meat. What’s not to like?

Main / Entree – Cheese Savoury Stottie – Cheese savoury is the holy grail of sandwich fillings. A heady combination of orange cheese, onion and carrot blended with the finest creamy mayonnaise and sharpest salad cream money can buy. Cheese savoury is perfect on the national bread of Geordieland – The Stottie. Stottie cake is a soft, dense, doughy bread with a slightly chewy exterior. I’ve never seen it outside the North East but if anyone in Greggs is reading this article I think they should roll it out as soon as possible to the rest of the UK. In fact there should be some form of retrospective compensation for people who have been denied stotties in their lives up until now. Until stotties travel south I’ll begrudgingly make do with a Cheese savoury sub.

Dessert – Caramel Custard Donut – An almost bread like donut unevenly filled with smooth vanilla custard. The caramel glaze finishes off this perfect of patisserie items. Krispy Kreme can retreat back to the USA as far as I’m concerned.

One day we’ll see branches of Greggs on the streets of Mumbai and Beijing and they’ll be featuring the stottie on the Great British Bakeoff. You read it here first...... 

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

King Neptune, Chinese Restaurant, Newcastle Review

Returning home to the North East is always an overload of sentimentality. The number of happy memories of my childhood which come flooding back makes for a trying experience for Mrs G who is always on the receiving end of my endless stream of food related anecdotes.

On the Saturday I’d managed to persuade Mrs G to come with me to a Newcastle United match.She miraculously enjoyed it even though it was the most turgid game of football I’ve seen from Newcastle this season. Perhaps it was the experience of 50,000 people erupting in voice and hugging as we scored our solitary winning goal which swung it for her.

A fairly typical post-match ritual for many a fan is a trip to Newcastle’s China Town located on Stowell Street, a few minutes’ walk from the football stadium. Some of my most vivid food memories come from this little street. Special occasions with my grandparents were always spent at The Royal Circle (now consigned to the Chinese restaurant graveyard) for excessive quantities of what seemed like everything on the menu. In 6th form, a Karate Club training day concluded with a banquet in The King Neptune.Inevitably there was much jostling over the Lazy Susan for the last morsels of food.

A short walk from St James Park to China Town - Credit Robin Van Mourik
Stowell Street has seen many restaurants come and go in my lifetime. In my early childhood China town was dominated by traditional establishments serving food which catered to the Western palette. In my late teens a dark patch saw a worrying number of pile it high and serve it cheap all you can eat buffets. Thankfully all but one of these buffets seems to have disappeared and have been replaced with an increasing number of more authentic restaurants serving regional food which caters to Chinese palettes.

In the mood for a more nostalgic experience, we devoured our post-match meal at The King Neptune, one of oldest surviving establishments in China Town. The King Neptune has a friendly, family run feel and still proudly displays its plaques by the front door for its entry into the Egon Ronay guide in 1993, 1995 and 1997. Judging by its name, it unsurprisingly specialises in seafood. 

Leaving behind the chill autumn weather, we entered a bustling dining room that was packed to the rafters with people waiting at the bar for a table. Thankfully on my insistence, Gourmet Gilly had reserved a table meaning we were swiftly ushered to our seats. The eating commenced instantaneously with a bowl of crisp prawn crackers washed down with a bottle of cool Tiger Beer.

Spare ribs in Cantonese special sauce. Tender, crisp meat dripping in a sticky, sweet and slightly spicy sauce.

Aromatic crispy duck with pancakes. Crisp skin, moist meat, soft pancakes, delicately sliced cucumber and sweet hoi-sin sauce. Perfect.

Sizzling King Prawns in Black Bean Sauce – An intense sweet black bean sauce with bags of juicy king prawns.
Sizzling chicken in Cantonese sauce – Lush, spicy and sweet sauce

Crispy Beef with Plum Sauce – Crisp strands of melt in the mouth beef in a sweet plum sauce.

Scallops in Sea Spiced Sauce – Oodles of soft scallops (sadly lacking a crisp exterior) in a fragrant sauce which had a hint of the sea. It was the only dish we’d ordered which didn't have a sweet sticky sauce and so provided a welcome change for the taste buds.

Replete, we were brought warm flannels and segments of orange. There was no offer of a dessert menu and we took the hint that there was a desire for the table to be turned. Thankfully we were happy to make our exit as we wanted to be back in time for the highlights of the Newcastle game on Match of the Day. However, I could easily see how this could nark you off if you were out on a romantic date.

I’m not surprised by the popularity of King Neptune. What they do, they do very well. If you’re looking for a comfort food laden western style Chinese banquet then King Neptune does the job. Price-wise they’re not at the bargain end but equally they’re pretty reasonable (mains average around the £10 mark).

The details: 
King Neptune, 34 Stowell Street, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne And Wear NE1 4XQ
0191 261 6657

Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Great British Cheese Festival, Cardiff - Review

The Great British Cheese festival was 3 weeks ago but it would be a shame to let it pass with the last of the summer sun without leaving a few positive words.

We had an awesome couple of hours eating our bodyweight in fine cheese (I had severe cheese sweats by the end of morning); we drank a few halves of cider in the sunshine of Cardiff castle grounds; we ate a staggeringly good hog roast from Glamorgan Vale Pedigree Welsh Pigs and we also had a rather shambolic attempt at cheese tossing (the puntastic attendants urged us to stay still-ton and to do fetter).

Mrs G and I had bagged half price tickets through Kate Garraway’s bizarrely named group discount website, GoodyPass. This meant our entry fee was the princely sum of £4.37 instead of £8.75. However, even if we’d paid full price we’d still have been happy customers (especially as tickets for a cheese masterclass are included with a full price advance ticket).

The focal point of the festival was a large marquee with stalls from an impressive range of small cheese producers (there was only a small element of dross in the form of Tesco and Illchester, the manufactures of such monstrosities as Mexicana and Applewood smoke flavoured cheddar). 

Tasting highlights included Colston Bassett stilton, Quicke’s and Montgomery’s cheddar and Bath Blue. However the 2 cheeses with the X-factor which made it into our shopping basket were a mature goat’s cheese from Irish producer Killeen (powerful, nutty and creamy) and Devon blue (super creamy and mild with a bit of mouldy sharpness). Both pieces were devoured before the weekend was out with some rather fantastic caraway crackers from La Fromagerie.

If the sun is shining then I’d highly recommend spending a few hours wiling away the day in the beautiful grounds of Cardiff castle at The Great British Cheese Festival. However, I can see how a few rain clouds could take the lustre off this pretty weather dependant event.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Is Cardiff a rubbish place to eat out? Some slightly ropey evidence based blogging.

With the release of The Good Food Guide 2012 and Michelin Guide 2012, it’s worth taking stock of how Cardiff fares in the guide in comparison to the other cities of the UK.

Cardiff is frequently berated by myself and others for a lack of quality dining options. But do the statistics really show that Cardiff is punching below its weight? I thought I’d a try a little bit of shonky evidence based blogging using the aforementioned guides to try and find out the answer.

All of my population stats have come from Wikipedia and I thought it would be best to look purely at city population sizes and not wider surrounds for the sake of a fair comparison. Michelin stats have come from this pdf and Good Food Guide stats were counted from a paper copy of the book whilst sat in front of the X-factor (I’m afraid Kitty may have thrown me off my counting flow).

Let’s look at Cardiff first. We’re the 10th largest city in the UK with a population of 341,054. In the Michelin guide we have no stars and 2 Bib Gourmands. Meanwhile in The Good Food Guide there are 5 entries with an average score of 2. It doesn’t seem great but let’s compare it to the rest of the UK.

Cardiff Michelin 2012 entries:
Chai Street – Bib Gourmand
Mint & Mustard – Bib Gourmand

Cardiff Good Food Guide entries:
Ffresh – Cooking score 1
Garcon Brasserie Francaise – Cooking score 1
Mint & Mustard – Cooking score 2
Patagonia – Cooking score 3
Woods Brasserie – Cooking score 3

Population Size
Number of Michelin starred restaurants
Number of Bib Gourmands
Number of Good Food Guide entries
Kingston upon Hull
Total in UK
this would take forever for me to count

What’s immediately clear from the stats is that Cardiff doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb for being a gastronomic wasteland. We have the same number of Michelin starred restaurants (i.e. none) as 7 other of the 13 largest cities, we hold the joint second largest number of bib gourmands out of the 13 largest cities in the UK and our number of Good Food Guide entries seems fair for the size of our city.

However, looking closer, it’s pretty clear that other than London and Edinburgh, the UK’s 13 largest cities are pretty rubbish at high end dining. In fact it’s only London that kicks ass as far as Michelin is concerned. With only 11.5% of the UK population they hold a whopping 38% of the UK’s Michelin stars and 38% of the UK’s Bib Gourmands. In contrast outside of London, the other top 12 cities combined have 8.9% of the UK’s population yet only 6.9% of the UK’s Michelin stars and 6.8% of the UK’s Bib Gourmands.  

So what conclusions can we draw? If you want to live somewhere where you don’t have to moan about eating out options then I suggest a move to London or perhaps one of the UK’s few gastronomic hotspots (think Ludlow or Bray). Other than that everywhere seems to be just as good (or as bad) as each other. 

Mint & Mustard, Whitchurch Road, Cardiff Review, Food blog

With the departure of head chef Anand George from Mint & Mustard (he’s as close as it comes to a celeb chef in the ‘diff), you could understand if the restaurant had taken a bit of a downward turn. In fact, the complete opposite seems to have happened. Awarded a Bib Gourmand this week in the 2012 Michelin Guide (one of only 3 restaurants in Wales, another being Chai Street their sister restaurant next door) and scoring well in the 2012 Good Food Guide, it’s clear Mint & Mustard don’t miss their former skipper.

Amazingly, Mrs G and I hadn't yet visited since being in Cardiff for over 2 years. In light of the recent flurry of awards, we decided we couldn't wait any longer and made the trip on Friday evening. 

For a restaurant touted as fine dining, the interior of Mint & Mustard feels a little all over the shop. Blue and pink spotlights, modern chrome fittings and traditional paintings all feel at odds with each other. I think they could take a leaf out of the uber-trendy Chai Street's book. Whilst the interior feels mismatched, the serving staff bring an air of class to proceedings; impeccably dressed in Nehru collared jackets they exude professionalism and friendliness.

Perusing the menu, we nibbled on some rather dainty mini popadums with delicious homemade chutneys (£3.50). A sweet date chutney tasted like curried jam, a mint chutney was delightfully fresh on the palette, whilst the astringency of the lemon chutney made my mouth pucker with every mouthful.

The relatively brief menu by Indian restaurant standards (I’m used to seeing over a hundred permutations of meat and sauce combinations) reads remarkably well. The focus is on South Indian dishes using fragrant spice combinations, fresh fish & vegetables. However to keep the punters happy (that includes me), there’s plenty of curry house staples available- samosas, naans and even chicken tikka massala all make an appearance. For those looking for something a little more extravagant there’s even an epic mealtime tasting menu, priced for a special occasion at £39.95 a head.

Having heard from friends that the portion sizes are nouvelle cuisine-esque and the prices veer towards the extravagant; I was pleased to be proved wrong on both accounts. Portions were as generous as any curry house I’ve been to and although the food is a few quid more than the run of the mill, you definitely get your money’s worth in quality of cooking.

To start I went for Nandu (£8.50) - crispy soft shell crab in a fragrant batter of curry leaf & garlic. Perfectly delicate batter gave way to soft crab meat. An accompanying tamarind sauce provided a welcome sweetness to the dish. However, there were  elements I wasn’t quite sold on-  an unnecessary mint chutney squiggle gave the impression that fancy presentation was taking priority over taste,  an avocado and bell pepper salad was overwhelmed by red onion  and a French dressed salad garnish felt out of place (surely a more appropriate dressing could have been used).

Mrs G opted for Paneer Tikka (£5.20) – A generous portion of soft, creamy, cardamom infused cottage cheese with a lightly charred exterior. Delicious.

For main I ordered the Chef’s platter (£16.95) – a gigantic plate of tandoori salmon, king prawns, chicken tikka, seekh kebab and lamb chops. Every element was cooked to perfection; the salmon was moist and sweet whilst the incredible lamb chop was pink on the inside and melted in the mouth. Once again the one size fits all use of chutney stripes and French dressed salad felt a little amiss. A little bit of curry sauce perhaps would have been more appropriate.

The flavour of Mrs G’s powerfully meaty lamb coconut fry (£11.50) was a knockout; the mix of lambiness, coconut, shallots and curry leaf was divine. Unfortunately, the dish was let down by the cooking of the meat which was on the dry side- particularly disappointing when it looked as though it was going to melt in the mouth.

My favourite dish of the evening was a vegetable side of Bhindi Masala (£4.25). Tender okra nestled in a lightly spiced, creamy tomato sauce- Indian comfort food at its finest. A side dish of raita (£3.00), delicately spiced with a little cumin and chilli was described as the best ever by Mrs G. Even the sides were on the nail. A generous bowl of steamed basmati rice (£3.50) flavoured with clove and a crisp and fluffy naan (£2.50) were cooked perfectly.

I took a brief glance at the dessert menu but quickly realised this would have been a step from gluttony into crapulence (word of the week – sickness caused by excessive eating- brilliant).

Mint and Mustard clearly has a very bright future ahead in the capable hands of Chef Sid Rathore. I just wish they’d hold back on their unnecessarily frivolous chutney squiggles and salad garnishes. Why not let the truly stunning flavours of the dishes speak for themselves.

The details: 
Mint and Mustard, 134 Whitchurch Rd, Cardiff, CF14 3LZ
02920 620 333

Check out my review of Chai Street next door too: